Friday, July 31, 2009


Budapest formed on the eastern bank of the Danube around the slopes of what is now called Gellért hill, the highest point in the region. The hill takes its name from St. Gerard, Hungary’s first bishop, martyred by being thrown off the cliffs there. From Gellért it is easy to look across the river, which here flows North to South, in order to scan the East—whence came wave upon wave of nomadic peoples who, for the locals, were always a threat. Here rose one fortification after the other, not least the Castle of Buda, and as that name implies, this settlement was called Buda after the Magyars, who were one of those dangerous invaders, renamed the place after one of their leaders. In later times, as population grew, it eventually spilled across the water. The city across the way was Pest. And, again in due time (1872), the two settlements united to form Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

The city was originally built by the Celts. Yes. If you’re a Central European, you’re a bit of an Irishman, and not just on St. Patrick’s day. The Celts called the settlement Ak-Ink (abundant water). After the Roman expansion eastward eventually incorporated the region (Pannonia) into the Empire, the Romans transformed that name into Aquincum. The Magyars came in the ninth century of our era. Throughout its history, Budapest was, in a quite genuine sense, a border between West and East, the Danube itself a natural line on the map of successive cultures. But in the center of Budapest, which is the river, there is an island which, as it were, makes the center of the center. It is called St. Margaret’s Island. And it was on that island, poised between two worlds, betwixt the East and the West, Catholicism and Protestantism, the traditional and the modern, in the border zone, as it were, that my mother gave birth to her first child seventy-three years ago today. My father, a Catholic and a professional soldier, was stationed in Budapest at the time; the Army maintained a military hospital on St. Margaret’s Island which my mother, a Protestant, was therefore privileged to use. This explains the circumstances of my birth. Or was there something else afoot?—such as, for instance, that this island, in pagan times, had been known as The Island of the Rabbits? It’s true. And I just learned this important fact today, delighted—delighted because I’m a great fan of the rabbits and, on my walks, always count them and consider myself very lucky if I see thirteen or more…

Yes. Budapest is another cradle of Ghulf genes. The coat of arms that kicks things off today is that of Budapest, of course, incorporating in its image the crown of Hungary with its characteristic leaning cross, two castles, Buda’s and Pest’s, separated by the Danube’s azure. As one discovers in delving into heraldry and ancient artifacts, universes of controversy open. The cross was most likely tilted in an accident, but one finds dozens of conflicting stories. The lions, I assume, were presciently chosen because the heralds of the nineteenth century knew that I’d be born under the sign of Leo. Alternatively, the winged lion was part of the original seal of Buda; Pest’s own coat-of-arms bore a griffin, not a lion. In combining the two, the high council responsible for this matter, later, after long and heated debates, eventually replaced the griffin with another, if wing-less, lion for better balance.

The photographs show St. Margaret’s Island. In the first the island is the green mass touched by the bridge in the foreground (St. Margaret’s Bridge). The island’s lovely water tower—at its foot is a grand outdoor theater—is the only visible structure. The second bridge, in the distance, is Árpád Bridge, named after the Magyar chieftain who founded Hungary. The view is from Pest, thus from the East looking North. Behind us on the eastern shore is the Parliament. Across the way and roughly equidistant is Buda Castle. The second photo shows one of the fountains in one of the parks of this large island. The hospital where I was born has long since been transformed into a health resort.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ai, Ai, Ai!

The coincident appearance of two accounts recently reminded me again that Artificial Intelligence is supposedly advancing even as Ordinary Intelligence is visibly in decline. Indeed the two may be aspects of each other. The first was a New York Times piece titled “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” June 26. This was on the front page yet! The other was “Droning On,” by William S. Lind, in The American Conservative.

The first story reports without commentary on a conference held by computer scientists, members of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, at Asilomar in California. Nice place, Asilomar: beachside conference center nestled in lovely pine woods, walks on the beach, a great surf, fresh, modern facilities, all wood (except for pristine plumbing) a genuinely Danish atmosphere. And here people sat about thinking about the end of the human era, an intelligence explosion, and machines that can empathize with you one moment and kill you the next. These brainy people, to quote the story, “generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet.” At the same time, however, they wondered: “What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being?”

In the second story, politically incorrect William Lind dares to question the current and insane military doctrine that victory belongs to the technologist. He excoriates the military for using drone aircraft as killing machines. His article is well worth reading. Lind, wisely, puts the focus on the people behind the gadgets rather than marveling at machines. But the two stories converge. In the first scientists wring their hands; they let themselves imagine that machines have actual volition; in the second military people are depicted believing that weapons systems win military conflicts rather than people.

The mere fact that such nutty notions can gain traction is literally proof that ordinary intelligence—or, rather, its serious education—has been too long neglected. We are evidently sinking into barbarism in the midst of a vast technological expansion. Reluctantly, over the years, I’ve come to accept that math and engineering can be taught to and applied at very high levels by people who’ve managed, ultimately, to stay very stupid. So also can administration, accounting, and even law. There are hierarchies of knowledge, and the technical is nowhere near the top.

Circumstances so arranged things that I came to master the computer thing—and at a fundamental enough level so that I genuinely understand it. I was over forty when I started. Dante’s launch into the Inferno is not a bad analogy:

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.
Ay me! [Inferno, Canto I]
Ai, Ai, indeed. But, like Dante, I too had a skillful inner guide, and so it all worked out. In those days I remember the wonder and amusement with which I plowed my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach thinking, along the way, that we may have lost God but we’ve certainly discovered magic. We would form the body of an artificial man out of silicon—well, it is a kind of refined sort of dust—and then it would come alive. Or so Hofstadter hoped and believed. But breathing the breath of life into this artificial beast is proving a bit difficult it seems. Huff, puff, huff, puff. It’s not working yet, but faith, surely, conquers all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One New, One Old

Written this morning.

Haiku in Three Drips

The rain stopped falling
At half past five, but a fast
Relentless drop kept

Me awake, its beat
Against the gutter’s steel, ping,
Ping, ping, ping, ping was

A Chinese water
Torture insisting on its
Own sharp Summer sound.


Written on July 13, 1999 for Brigitte.

A Triplet of Haikus 4U

Before it really
Dawns, the birds noise somewhere near.
An owl hoots. Summer.

In the silence I
Hear the clock thump like a heart
On the sunroom shelf.

Above these faint sounds,
Unseen but not unaware,
God watches you sleep.


Note for John: Alas, they are a family heritage. They sprout spontaneously where poets reside.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why We Have Fingerprints

Of one thing only I am sure of:
Of dermal doctors none’s the greater,
Of skin none abler a repairer,
Than Nora Maya Kachaturoff!

Every visit to my dermatologist is fascinating enough so that it must be followed by another posting about skin. This morning I learned yet one more interesting fact. Science has discovered, and relatively recently, what function fingerprints perform in the great ecology of life. Our fingerprints have not been created (despite the claims of criminology) to help us apprehend the thief. No. Fingerprints serve a higher purpose: they help us feel the world with greater discrimination.

I was looking, again, at a wall chart quite similar to the one shown on the left. On the one that I was looking at, the odd little organelle near the center, colored green, did not have a label. Thus, after my consultation with Dr. Kachaturoff approached its end, I asked her what that formation might be all about. “Ah,” she said, “the Pacinian corpuscle.” It is a bulbous nerve ending but deep enough inside the skin so that I wondered: How could it be effective so deep down? The doctor explained. The corpuscle responds to vibrations. Then she explained, becoming quite lively (but she is always animated) at encountering a patient who took an interest in such matters arcane, that recent, modern research has uncovered a linkage between the Pacinian bulb and fingerprints. Evidently when something slides across those tiny ridges, vibrations are set up sufficient so that the deep-lying corpuscle can identify them and send a translation of this phenomenon on its way to Washington, as it were—the vastly distant brain.

Even a cursory examination of any aspect of the skin (and other ranges of the vast empire we call the body) reveals how many people labored for centuries to understand it. The discoverer of this tiny bulb was Filippo Pacini (1812-1883), an Italian anatomist, better known, perhaps, for isolating the cholera bacillus in 1854—well before Robert Koch, who came thirty years later and got all the credit. While we are entertained in the media by the antics of celebrities, other people, working in deep obscurity, keep discovering the secrets we think we already know. In the twenty-first century we are still completing insights that began in the nineteenth—or much earlier.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Flux of Matter

Within the last week I’ve come across two articles each of which makes the point that the human body carries, inside and out, ten times as many bacteria as it has cells. We have somewhere between 60 to a 100 trillion cells. The numbers below begin to be as great as those in the astronomical above. The source I’ve managed to locate is a New York Times blog entry by Olivia Judson entitled “Microbes ‘R’ Us.” I can’t locate the second one—nor yet reports of the unveiling of some new scientific paper—hence I assume that Judson was probably the source of the second fragment I saw somewhere else.

Judson’s blog differs from earlier stories of this sort in one respect alone—namely its estimate of a total upper boundary of the number of bacteria in or around the body. Not that anyone has ever really counted the critters, but the human mind loves factoids, and soon everyone will know about the quadrillion bacteria we carry without so much as bending under the weight. The mere fact that we carry bacteria by the billions, trillions has been known for quite some time, of course. Our digestive functions vitally depend on bacterial cultures. The bacteria feed on our food, transform it, and we digest the “treated” product much more easily. Such bacteria are called commensals, a word coined from Latin rooting literally meaning “with-eaters.” When antibiotics destroy too many of these helpful parasites, we are in trouble until they are reintroduced and multiply.

Bodies may be likened to standing swirls or vortices of matter, analogous to constant swirls created in flowing water by structures on the river bed that cause turbulence below and on the surface. Matter constantly flows in and out of me—my breath for one. I’m constantly losing matter whenever I so much as touch something; I gain it back as I breathe, eat, drink. My cells have a finite life and are replaced. In each of my cells tiny power-plants, the mitochondria, have their own DNA and cycles of life; they are true symbionts. If I had instruments fine enough to see and measure at the elemental level, my body would extend a vast distance from its core, what I call the body, because I radiate heat, and matter escapes from me and floats away into the air. Not least I host—and benefit from—vast colonies of independent living things. To the extent that my health depends on them, are they really separate from me? Or part of the body? Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line? What, if anything, do I mean by me. This swirl, this standing wave of turbulence?

These are the kinds of thoughts young people think—and those who’ve failed to grow up or haven’t simply accepted the current explanations and therefore are still curious. Heraclitus (535-475 BC) has provided one of the answers—the one that captures all of the above: “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” But that’s the sound of one hand clapping. And for balance I need another hand.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


A steely decision that brooks no rescission
To post on Ghulf Genes no matter the means
That I must deploy—deep, thoughtful, or coy—
A steady supply, one for each day of the month of July,
That is the aim I hope will hereby justify a game
Or two, here and there, a puzzle there and here a rhyme.

Another Geo Puzzle

A puzzle in time also saves time—at a time when time is in short supply. This one is rather fun especially in our circle of reference publishing; we deal with States of the Union all the time. The puzzle is available here. Comment with your score and I’ll (reluctantly) confess mine. This one comes from my dear brother, Baldy. His scores are, as you might guess, if you know him, high!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lodz: One of our Cradles

Lodz is Poland’s second largest city with some 890,000 inhabitants today. It began as a small farming community and later developed into a center of the textile industry. The place first appears in written records in 1332. The Poles write the name as Łódz and pronounce it as Voudcs, the “ou” as in could, the “cs” as in church. During the Nazi days the Germans renamed the city Litzmannstadt—a rather radical revision when you consider that in Polish Lodz means “boat.” A boat with an oar is the city’s symbol. The image on the left shows an old version of it dating to 1577. The text, in Latin, says Seal of the Town of Lodz. The shape of the object reminds one of Viking raiders; the modern city’s coat of arms, shown next, retains that shape—a yellow boat on a red field. One imagines the first settlers arriving by boat, rowing up the Jasien river, coming from the west. The river eventually supplies its waters to the Oder. One old boat must have been left dry on land up on some rise, and the landing came to be called “boat.”

Spinning and weaving became an early industry in Lodz and textile working appears to have caused a village to rise to the status of a city. One of the earliest buildings was a weaving mill along the Jasien river in 1387. Lodz may have had a history similar to the city of Szczecin—a gradual colonization by enterprising Germans; but in Lodz this process was not quite so advanced. Brigitte’s forebears were relatively recent immigrants, following a tradition introduced well before their time, and at the time of Brigitte’s arrival in 1932, they were still in that industry, even if her own parents no longer were. Not only that. Both of Brigitte’s parents came from textile families. Her mother’s people had founded a textile spinning operation in Lodz in the middle of the nineteenth century. The successor of that mill was still in operation in Brigitte’s day, although the enterprise was by then also engaged in manufacturing weaving equipment. Brigitte’s mother, however, was a dentist. Her father’s family were operating textile weaving enterprises; but her father was an economist and business consultant.

History, Journalism

We take a breath ten to twenty times a minute; a newborn breathes (so I’m assured) forty-four times a minute, a running athlete every second. A history that might record our every breath, explicitly, I mean, would probably be as boring as the sequel that the eager publisher hurries to the market: My Life: One Eye Blink At a Time.

I made the mistake a couple of months ago of picking up a history of Rome. The dreary results of that decision are found here and there marring my blogs. The latest consequence of that error has been reopening Gibbon’s Decline and Fall at a point where a sheet of paper was sticking out. The paper was a map from the Internet showing parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia as the Romans (and Gibbon) called them. Illyricum is the Balkans, Pannonia is my Hungary, The Mediterranean is Mare Internum, etc. Reading Roman History is a kind of Madness: One Emperor at a Time.

Much as breaths and eye blinks punctuate our lives, so reading history punctuates mine. The intervals are greater, but the reactions, each time, invariably, are the same. Eventually I’m overcome by exasperation. I have the feeling that formal histories miss something essential. That impulse, several big breaths ago, sent me looking for the fine structure of history, in that era. The field is sparse, at least the kind of literature you can buy in a bookstore. I have a single slender volume on everyday life in Rome. Wouldn’t you know it! It begins with the first problem most of us have when we wake up. It seems that to find a comfy place in which to urinate was not that easy in the good-old-days—unless, that is, a leather tannery was right next door. Those places liked collecting urine as a processing chemical and made “facilities” available to the public. Oh, my. The scatological isn’t neglected later either; I learned that doing Number Two was also a more or less public event. But enough of this giggly stuff.

The resolution of history—I mean that now in an optical sense—illustrates our limitations. At the very fine resolution we get a replay of ordinary experience that we normally ignore. At the highest resolutions that one finds in cyclic historians there seem to be no people there at all; the actors are civilizations. In the middle ground are notable figures, and the more notable they are, the more one longs for a peaceful game of tic-tac-toe.

Journalism, the so-called first draft of history, lives up to the name. It’s rhythm is daily, more recently almost hourly, but the focus is on Important People, and the importance of these people is in part derived from the vicious things they do. My experience—or reactions to them, actually—appear determined to wean me of these interests, but like all of the rest of the humanity I’m morbidly fascinated. It’s very hard to break the habit of enjoying the outrage at all the horrors, which is actually no joy at all. But it takes genuine effort to turn away. And the sophisticated forms of it, such as vast, beautifully written, scholarly histories are no more elevated, in result, than journalism, or seeing gladiators slaying one another, or watching the modern versions of them mowing down jerking, spasming bodies on TV.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Why did the Balkans cause the Romans, the Byzantines, the Austrians, and our current times such political headaches? Why is Afghanistan known as the graveyard of empires? The answer is, Terrain. I once read in a penetrating book about the Balkans—I wish I could remember its title—that if you ironed out its terrain, it would be almost the size of all of Europe. That notion might be applied to Afghanistan as well. In such terrains even the overwhelming power of a U.S. military falters. These regions breed independent people able to outlast the most persistent.

This post will also serve to introduce those who've never had the pleasure to use Google Maps, using the "Terrain" feature, to the insights such views can offer. Herewith terrain maps of Sarajevo and Kabul...

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Afghanistan in Context

Fifty years ago, as a young man in the U.S. Army in Europe, I first learned about Kashmir. My education has always taken novel forms. It proceeded by bumps, exposures, and absorptions. Ten years before that time, for instance, I’d learned about Korea when listening to some inspirational readings—about the labors of brave missionaries—at Konvikt Sankt Bernhard, a Catholic boarding school in Germany. Every day, at the noon meal, someone read out loud for about fifteen minutes until our principal said “Satis”; thus I also learned what Romans said when they meant to say “Enough.” Five years before that time, I learned about the Sufis when my mother threw up her hands and cried: “Stop it! Stop dancing like a wild Dervish.” Anyway, I learned about Kashmir because the deputy commander of our unit, a lieutenant colonel, was taking classes offered by the University of Maryland; so was I. He had to write a paper and asked me to help him shape its English; he provided the content. Editing the stiff text, I learned about Kashmir. Fifty years ago.

The memory surfaced today as I noted in the New York Times that Pakistan objects to U.S. actions in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, which causes Pakistan problems of insurgency inside the country, forcing it to pull back troops from its borders with India, not least borders with parts of Kashmir. The Pakistanis, evidently, are much more concerned about India than worried about terrorism by virtual cousins, you might say, which the Taliban certainly are.

Pakistan itself is just 62 years old, dating from the partition of India into two Muslim enclaves (Pakistan and East Bengal) and India proper. That took place in 1947, followed by chaotic upheavals and the kinds of half-forced and half-voluntary migrations we’ve come to call ethnic cleansing—as Hindus moved south and east and Muslims went north and west. No sooner separated, Pakistan and India fell out over Kashmir, a mostly Muslim princedom that Pakistan began to infiltrate when its ruler did not opt to join the Dominion of Pakistan. Kashmir’s northern areas are ruled by Pakistan, its southern reaches by India, and high tension has stiffened the air above this region ever since 1947, wars between Pakistan and India erupting in 1965 and again in 1999. As for East Bengal, a part of Pakistan after the partition and renamed East Pakistan, it eventually broke away and became Bangladesh. In that conflict, as well as in all of the others that surrounded the partition, many thousands of people perished.

This entire region, including large areas of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, have an honorably violent history in which two cultures (Muslim and Hindu) have been clashing ever since Muslim invasions from the North began in 1206. Islamic sultanates eventually conquered all of the Indian subcontinent in the Mughal period (early sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century).

We are now bogged down on the northern fringes of this region under the strange illusion that controlling Afghanistan—a mostly stony, rocky, mountainous, dirt-poor, and barbaric region of the world, that no empire has ever effectively managed to control—will secure us from terrorism. In this process we’re ignoring the vast sweep of history. We’re projecting our own values and assumptions on this region and naively believe that democratic forms will not only take root there but magically transform a region in habits and history altogether alien to ours.

And fifty years from now? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some earnest colonel in 2059 will still be using his spare time to improve himself by learning something about Kashmir. Or Bangladesh. Or the geography of the Khyber Pass.
Maps are from the CIA World Factbook, an old friend, you might say.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Humanity Steps on the Moon

Certain events deserve nothing less or more than a simple bow of the head. Such was the landing on the moon that took place forty years ago today. I was underway, traveling by car, far from home, somewhere in Indiana, driving in darkness and listening to the radio. At last, and just in time, I saw lights and an easy exit. I drove off and made it to the light—a filling station. The owner had set up a TV set in the garage, the two bays empty, the lifts lowered on their oily columns. And there, a handful of us—locals and travelers—stood in the semi-darkness and watched as Neil Armstrong descended and made contact with the dust of the moon. Humanity was watching. I waited in line at the pay-phone until, my turn, I called home to share the moment with my family back in the state with the red earth, Virginia, where we lived in what, in our small circle, brings that whole time back: the Wallingford house.

The American People

My title refers to the common phrase we hear, constantly, in political discourse. Now I will present a sample of two such people, American People, the only people seen walking on Kercheval Avenue in Grosse Pointe (it’s a sizeable boulevard), at precisely seven minutes to 5 p.m. today. One was myself, wearing jeans, a striped shirt, and a rugby cap (Detroit Rugby Football Club, Est. 1968), and carrying a white plastic CVS bag holding two medications, picked up on foot (about an hours' walk) to get exercise and (incidentally) to save a tiny bit of gasoline. Concerning me, you know a little something from reading this blog. The other representative of the American People was a gentleman of roughly my age. He wore a tan suit, a white shirt, and a dark bow tie. He walked from the shade of an elm into the sunshine, and that bow tie was like a coat-of-arms, you couldn’t miss it. He was carrying a slender folder. Judging by the place, the time, I guessed that he was a retired businessman or banker who still visits an office, a place of refuge, a place where the transition may be marked in dignity, most likely in the Punch & Judy Building, across from our Library—a building that specializes in offering just such suites, modest in size but nicely appointed, to serve such purposes. I went my way, he in his, and as I walked home I pondered the meaning of this picture—the limitless uniqueness of each and every person, not least the American People neither of these two old men could see—because they were driving up and down Kercheval, as usual, but the sunlight reflecting brightly from the windshield hid their faces from view.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Quote in Time Saves Time

Das eigentlich wahrhaf Gute, was wir tun, geschieht größtenteils clam, vi et
. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The genuinely good that we do happens largely clam, vi et precario, thus in secret, by effort and prayer—although, strictly speaking, the Latin means secretly, by force and by request. Prayer in Latin is precatio. I feel the temptation to wax eloquent on that difference between an R and a T, but time presses today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Flipsides of Alienation

Many years ago now, Brigitte once bought a pack of cigarettes an enterprising outfit had produced. The cigarettes looked real, felt real, had a tobacco odor. She gave me one without revealing the background. I lit the thing up, took one puff, held it at arm’s length. I said: “There’s something wrong with this cigarette. It, uh, it lacks a theme.” I had a Churchill quote in mind. Churchill supposedly sent back a pudding once, saying to the waiter: “Tell the chef, this pudding has no theme.” My cigarette was made of some kind of grass carefully doctored in all of the irrelevant ways. But it had no nicotine.

There is the story of the young man who went to work for a pair of brothers, master dyers. They made a highly prized color purple. After two years of learning, our man left one day and organized his own shop in a distant town. He used the same ingredients as the Purple Brothers. He had timing, temperatures, vessel-sizes, sequences—everything right. But at the end he got a sick-green dye nobody wanted. He labored months but kept on failing. He went on to another trade. But years later he ran into one of the Purple Brothers. They went and had a beer. Our man confessed. “What did I do wrong?” The Purple fellow laughed. He said: “Remember how we used to send you out to fetch fresh rolls every morning? Well, while you were gone we added it—the secret ingredient.”

When a person is said to be alienated, the assumption is that all is well with the society. Something is wrong with the alienated person. But the flip side of this is that the lack may well be in society, not in the person. What happens when the salt of the earth hath lost its savor?

Alienation may be the right, the healthy, the creative response to a situation. But for most people this is a painful process. We tend to blame ourselves; we think that we are maladapted. A Sufi story comes to mind. This concerns a man who learns that, as of a certain date, by evil magic, all of the water naturally flowing would be poisoned and the poison would make everybody mad. The man labors hard and hides several large vessel of good water deep in a cave. When the day comes, the people really do—they go crazy. All sorts of madness spreads. But our fellow retains his sanity. He secretly fetches his still-good water late at night and carefully sips it all day. But he soon feels, well, alienated, separated, estranged, alone. For weeks he holds out but, in the end, he can’t stand it any more. On that day he goes to the flowing fountain in the town, drinks of the poisoned water, and goes crazy like the rest.

As you can you tell, I’ve been listening (if only in nauseated dribbles) to Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings—and to the health care debate. I'm also a regular reader (more honestly a skimmer) of the New York Times. What’s wrong with me? I keep drinking deep of the poisoned water, but it doesn’t seem to work on me.

Added Later: Strange how things happen. On the evening of the day on which I wrote the above, I visited for the first time a link on Siris to a blog called Nova Scotia Scott where I found, in the side-bar, the following quote:

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us’.” — St Antony of Egypt

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Measured Pace of Progress

The idea of progress is showing signs of over-ripeness—little brown spots on the pristine green of the pear. I think the idea came into flower with the French Revolution, and one of its rational hopes was that measurement would start obeying sensible rules, everything decimal, s’il vous plait—milli-, centi-, and meter; kilometer; milli-, centi-, and liter; deciliter, hectoliter; milli-, centi-, and gram, kilogram, metric ton. It didn’t quite happen; and what with the pear over-ripe, metrication isn’t in our future either.

I was reminded of that today. I was helping proof our second oldest product, Market Share Reporter, the upcoming volumes (he shakes his head in disbelief) will be the seventeenth edition. This book covers the world of things on sale across the world, tangible or otherwise, and in the things that you can touch all kinds of measurements surface.

I note that long, metric, and the standard U.S. ton are still all alive and well although they are 2240, 2205, and 2000 pounds respectively. The hundredweight still also comes in two varieties, although the Imperial cwt, 112 pounds, is fading—used these days only for weighing bells intended to be rung. The c of cwt stands for the Latin centum. I note that it takes 20 Imperial cwt to make a long ton. Long tons are still used for aviation fuel. The long is sometimes referred to as gross ton. To complicate matters, a deadweight ton (dwt) is the carrying capacity of ships, and it comes in tonnes (1000 kg) or in long tons (1016 kg). Tonne is the synonym for metric ton, and when you proof you’ve got to be aware of that, strike through the word and say metric ton instead for the U.S. readership. Looking these things up I discovered that there is also an “old” hundredweight (108 pounds), but that will only be of interest to medievalists.

The Brits did not like the French Revolution, something we know from history. Today it seems that they like the French better than the Germans. They use the French spelling for litre; the Germans say liter. So do we. At ECDI we want things spelled one way or the other, not both ways at once.

Coal is sometimes reported by “millions of tons of oil equivalent,” sometimes as metric tons, sometimes as tons. All good analysts have on their desk—I can see mine from here—little handbooks that let us render anything into anything else. Gas in cubic meters? When I want cubic feet. No problem. Oil is usually reported in barrels, but the gallon comes in two versions. A U.S. barrel is 42 U.S. gallons but 34.972 Imperial gallons; sadly, whichever gallons you use, you only get 19.74 gallons of gasoline out of a barrel of oil. But not all barrels are born equal. Barrels used for food or chemicals hold 55 U.S. gallons.

Diamonds? Millions of carats. Cotton? Bales. How much do these weigh? 480 pounds. Bushels? Pecks? When do I wake up? I’m dreaming of the future, and it holds lots of jīns, lǐs, and dàns. Those are Chinese measurements equivalent, respectively, to about a pound, about 550 yards, and 23 gallons. The dominant economy tends to impose some at least of its measurements on its trading partners sooner or later.

Sometimes one also runs into something like this. “The world market is worth Rs 3,000 crore.” Come again? This turns out to mean 30 billion rupees (Rs). Crore stands for 10 million and modifies the number shown. I guess the Indians like small numbers. The rupee being worth 2 cents, that market (for beer in India) was worth $615 million in 2008.

But enough. Progress is slow. And it may be recessive.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rays of Sunlight - Two

While in a praising mood, I thought I’d make a second entry to celebrate things large and small in modern culture. Herewith one big thing and one small.

Yesterday Air France delivered two boys to us, Henry and Malcolm, Michelle’s youngest, twins aged ten. They left Paris and arrived here some eight, ten hours later, smiling sweetly, full of life, accompanied by an unsmilingly severe lady in Air France uniform (the perfect French bureaucrat) holding their passports and wheeling their luggage. A curious process of identification then took place. The children waved, we rushed forward (Brigitte, Monique, and I) and proceeded to hug and smack big kisses in European style while the Air France lady observed and, no doubt, at some crucial level, fully knew that we were the people to whom these youngsters could now be safely transferred. Bits of paper? What do they know? Nonetheless, we next proceeded to the examination of bits of paper, not least Monique’s plastic-encased Michigan driver’s license—which the Air France lady dutifully studied, not least the picture, looking up to see if Monique was really the same reality as the photograph indicated. Magical things were going on—a mental process in the Air France lady’s mind which judged the picture to be Monique. Behind that look loomed the vast process of vehicle licensing arrangements by the State of Michigan. Then came signatures, twice, and finally, mutual nods and smiles (the bureaucrat cracked a little) signaled the end of the encounter, and— left, as it were, en famille— we proceeded to the elevators.

Second verse. Back at Monique’s house, not very much later, the boys in swimming trunks now, attempted to do it all at once, thus swimming and fishing at the same time. In this process I got entangled with Henry’s fishing box, left over from last summer. Inside it the top tray had been hopelessly disfigured by the melting of five or six artificial worms made of some kind of second-rate plastic that had liquefied in the fierce heat of last summer. While the boys were off to fish-and-swim simultaneously, I went off (always seeking concentration) to clean up that tray. It was fiercely resistant—until Monique, divining my problem, handed me one of the modern culture’s unsung but great products: Goo-be-Gone. Well, in truth, the product’s real name is Goo Gone, but everybody refers to it as I just did. The Producer is Magic American Corporation—and that’s the kind of magic I do believe in. In no time at all, Goo Gone had dealt with the melted worms and Henry’s tackle-box was as good as new. I suffered conscience pangs for enjoying this cleaning experience rather than using it as a way of interacting with Henry, letting him do it, but for the boys it was now 1:00 a.m. subjective time, for us 7:00 in the evening.

Praises to Air France and all the other airlines, battling the storms of high prices and falling travel patronage. Praises for Goo Gone.

It was a good day. There are lots of them. By way of a corrective to this excess of exuberance, I began looking forward to today’s New York Times, and, indeed, I wasn’t disappointed. Goo be Gone but Gloom be Back.

In Praise of Concentration

Quite early in my youth already I discovered that some people seek stimulus while others seek solitude. An innate endowment must lie beneath this difference. Those who seek solitude are easily stimulated; they’re sensitive—you might say excessively so. By “excess” I must here refer to an imagined standard from which most people don’t deviate far. At the spectrum’s other end are people who actively seek stimulus of every kind. For them solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment whereas for the sensitive that sentence has at least one element of charm.

On the whole I am much more solitary than outgoing. I lean in that direction, and strongly at that, much as in the choice between the Platonist or Aristotelian temperament, I definitely lean in the platonic direction. Yes, solitude. I well recall my delight long ago discovering the famous quote attributed to St. Bernard de Clairvaux: O beata solitudo! Sola beatitudo! Yes, I said. Yes, yes, yes! But what I mean by solitude—as I’m sure every other person so inclined also does—isn’t some kind of passive state of lazing around while chewing stems of grass and contemplating clouds. Solitude is an active, attentive, and sometimes a creative state. But it is inwardly rather than outwardly focused. The stimulus rises, comes from internal springs. And the very demand for solitude arises because it creates the best conditions for attending to this inner process. It requires concentration—which is very difficult to achieve amidst constant distractions.

Concentration, then, in turn—once it has become a well-established skill—counteracts the trance-inducing centripetal force of sensory stimulus from all sides. It calms and centers the self and produces what I call sovereignty. By that I simply mean a feeling of mastery over the world around me—even when my actual mastery is virtually zero. Nonetheless, in a concentrated state, I feel above the flux. When solitude is denied, concentration is still possible. In the world of action, it is a skill the invocation and practice of which has very beneficial consequences; better judgments will be made; actions will be more sharply, effectively directed. But concentration and its practice have more to do with athletics and crafts than with learning abstract concepts. It’s not a cognitive skill but something that depends on will. Those among the sensitives who cannot learn to exercise their will efficiently are condemned to endless suffering. Those at the other end of the spectrum can never get anything done. We ought to teach concentration in multiple settings to every human being—not just to some on football fields.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cultural Winter

In the early 1980s two scholars suggested that global nuclear war might asphyxiate photosynthesis in a vast cloud of soot and smoke persisting long enough to produce what they called “nuclear winter.” Now here I would suggest that analogous, strange, “unnatural” seasons do sometimes actually set it, caused by human action—and that the latter half of the twentieth century was such a lull, a freezing, a species of “cultural winter” caused by war.

My thesis is that a great cultural process has been underway since the eighteenth century, the peak of the Enlightenment, namely a slide toward barbarism; Oswald Spengler called it the “The Decline of the West.” The twin convulsions of global war were part of this process; the fact that we call them world wars is testimony to the reach of our civilization; their unsurpassed violence, culminating in the twin flowers of atomic fire over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proof of our mastery over nature. But the very violence of that conflict brought exhaustion and sharpened the emerging polarization between the decaying West and one of its chief heresies, Marxism. As World War II ended, it left the U.S. mesmerized by the threat of the U.S.S.R, and the other way around, while the Yellow Peril (a.k.a. China) was also heading the wrong way. The resulting paralysis brought a kind of madness at the upper layers of our culture—but, fortunately (that famed silver lining), it produced a kind of cultural quiet at the level where ordinary people lived.

The madness included children practicing to die under their desks with little arms folded over their heads. Quite a few people were frightened enough to build atomic shelters in backyards. McCarthyism was another ugly symptom, Joe hounding communists with steely eyes. The concerned and the sophisticated read books like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. At RAND Corporation Herman Kahn was thinking the unthinkable. Early signs of what today is a mad polarization began appearing as some members of the Silent Majority pasted little U.S. flags on cars to say that they loved Nixon. Places all over began to sprout astounding masses of nuclear bombs and missiles, but where they were nobody knew. Top Secret. The domino theory justified two wars, Korea, Vietnam. But all this while Capital was held in check. Government mattered because the reds were out to get us. Madness indeed. George Orwell, writing his novel, 1984, did not realize, I don’t think, that he was writing the script for a Reality Show called the Cold War.

Now for the silver lining—what I call cultural winter—namely the temporary suspension of our rush to decadence. It lasted for a period of roughly 50 years, from the end of World War II to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. In this period government felt obliged to look out for the people, fearing—consciously or unconsciously—that the public might embrace the communist heresy unless it had a modest level of well-being. Capital, therefore, was held in check. Communism kept us honest, cautious. It was a bi-polar world, and as a consequence life at the working level remained relatively peaceful despite spontaneous signs, twitching, and stirrings of decadence. But it was held in check.

Brigitte and I were lucky to have lived the core of our lives in this hiatus, with reasonable conditions in which to raise a family. In this time America was strangely innocent. The ordinary people remained friendly, polite, and modestly prosperous. The tension and madness above us could be felt but did not infect the folk. Talk radio? No. The top hits dominated the airwaves in the cities; out in the country country music reigned: “Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.” Bible programs. Polarization? Largely absent. TV shows? Happily mediocre and careful not to offend. Drugs? Yes, but distant. Little houses mushroomed everywhere and you could afford them with FHA loans. Libraries were good, not too crowded. In private you could have high culture, and Public TV did not solicit funds.

In retrospect only, to be sure, I liked the cultural winter. Curiously, when decadence began to move again—the dread of commies fading—the change was signaled by troubles in the Balkans. This whole interlude had begun there, in Sarajevo, kicking off the bloodiest conflict known until that time. Now it ended with the Balkans breaking into pieces, like the frozen surface of a river, vast blocks rubbing and scraping at each other. Cultural winter was over, and from now on the chaos already underway before I was born could resume its march into the future.
The scholars who coined the phrase “nuclear winter” were John Birks at the Max Plank Institute and Paul Crutzen at the University of Colorado writing in a paper published in Ambio in 1982.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Quite a while back I chanced across an automated slide-show titled “Secret Worlds: The Universe Within.” The title is a little lame, but the experience is not. The merit of this project is to enlarge our perspective, an activity fit for that day of the week reserved for contemplation. There are many dimension to reality, but the physical is certainly the one our eyes can’t help but contemplate. This show illustrates in images the Hermetic “As above, so below.” I urge all who see this post to take the tour and click through to see for themselves. The link is here.

For those who didn’t scroll down to the bottom of the page, I note that credit for this innovative view of our fractal universe belongs to Michael W. Davidson and the Florida State University, the joint copyright holders.

The idea for digging up this site—it took me a while to reconstruct the processes of mind that first produced it and to find the two- or three-word strategy I used in my search then—came to me while I was clearing a vast jungle of neglected growths in our back yard. Whenever I do that, and I am in touch with nature, handling branches and weeds and the dried out detritus of the last season still clinging to the soil and forming mats through which the new emerges; and then, always, I’m reminded of the stupendous complexity of everything, living or not—and who’s to say where living yields to dead? Relentless branchings and branchings of branchings of branchings—and looking at the tips of the tiniest things, catching my breath, I realized that I’ve not even begun to see. There’s much, much more, as the ads keep telling us—and so also the world.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Vertical Book

One of the disconcerting aspects of blogs is that the last page written is always first, the first one last—almost suggesting that we’ve reached the end times (Matthew 20:16). A lifetime of turning pages, cumulating those read on the left, has left me with an instinctive horizontal orientation and, furthermore, left to right. I own a Koran that’s printed right to left, and consulting its index, “in the front” from my perspective, gives me the same strange sense of disorientation that blogs do. If blogs develop themes, as mine sometimes do, you have to dig downward to find the root.

This approach is genuinely new. As I just learned from the University of Michigan’s website titled Papyrus Collection, from whence also the following illustrations, even in the days of scrolls, left to right was common in the classical era in Europe (Graeco-Roman times). The papyrus roll lay on your table, and you scrolled rather than turned its single page, gathering the already-read in your left hand while revealing the new with your right.

A vertical scroll became more fashionable in the Byzantine era (fourth to seventh centuries of our time), after the center of the Roman empire shifted to what we now call Istanbul. But this scroll, while you read it downward, still has the first “page,” as it were, on top, the last at the bottom.

Our habits tug and worry us like our bodies as they age. I wish I could have a blog where the newest entry is the last—and if you want to see the past you have to hit PageUp—and better yet, PageLeft—but we’d have to get new keyboards for that, so what’s the chance of satisfaction? Low to none. Easier to let people form new habits. Old is down and new is up, up, up, and up.

Friday, July 10, 2009


My father was a soldier, indeed the child of a soldier. He began his military career at age 14 by entering Hungary’s foremost military academy, known as Ludovika. The year was 1921, thus he just barely missed being part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s military elite by three years. That union fell apart in 1918. But what are three years in a tradition-bound institution like the military? Father’s education began with learning to speak German because, at Ludovika then, and for quite a while after, the old habits lingered and the ghost of Austria took a while to fade away.

He remained a military person in fact for some 25 years—until Patton’s army released him from the P.O.W. camp where World War II had ended for him. He was then a man of 39, an ex-major, and an ex-professor of the institute where his career had begun, the Ludovika Akademia, as Hungarians render it. In the interim he had commanded a horse-artillery company, later a battalion, had fought against the Russian army, and in the process, not very far from Lodz, in Poland, where Brigitte grew up as part of a German family, he lost his left arm in a mine explosion. A military man in fact for a quarter of a century, but a military man in spirit for as long as he lived. He closed his eyes in 1981 in Kansas City.

But Father’s passion and life-long preoccupation was dressage, the equestrian sport. Here too his place and time of birth had a bearing—the rest was talent and inclination—because Austria then, and indeed since 1565, has been the home of the Spanish Riding School. It is still there and, so all agree, the last and perhaps final bastion of l’haute école where training methods as they were practiced in the eighteenth century still remain largely unchanged. With this part of the culture, and, in those days, equestrian sports being largely practiced by the military, Father became interested in the sport and advanced in it rapidly enough so that, before the war changed everything, he had risen to a national stature in the sport, once won a bronze in a national competition, and hoped soon to be ready for the next Olympics. I was born as the 1936 Olympics were being held in Berlin. Father anticipated participating, cross-your fingers, in the 1940 event—but it never took place. It was to have been held in Tokyo, alas. By then we were living in another world.

Dressage is the art of training pure-blooded horses a variety of intricate gates and leaps you do not see horses performing in the wild. It is a sport in which horse-and-human become a single performer—truly an art where, despite an endless preoccupation with technique, the ultimate performance is one of feel and interaction between two living entities, and the beauty of the thing is also perceived—and truly appreciated only—by the trained and prepared mind.

Horses and equitation, not surprisingly, were part of my childhood. I heard words like collection, pesade, levade, courbette, and mezair almost daily. Collection refers to an intensified form during all standard gaits; the other words refer to so-called school-jumps and airs above the ground. What I mostly saw, however, when I watched my father train his or others’ horses, was the animal, unsaddled, making endless circles around my father, standing at the center of the circle, and communicating with the animal by gestures, sounds—and sometimes it seemed only by facial expressions—re-teaching the gifted horse how to do the basics right—the walk, the trot, the canter—and, above all, how to come to a stop in a state of perfect collection.

It should not surprise you, really, that our very first acquisition in America, something like a month after our arrival, was a horse. Her name was Lady, a nice Palomino mare. To reach her we had to catch two bus lines, both to their terminal points. After that a third bus, I think it was Greyhound, got us far enough out into the country to reach Lady in her sylvan haunts. And I, in my middle teens, had the honors of carrying the saddle on each and every bus, and then lug it further on the long walk to the far off farm where Lady lived. I learned in this process that I can overcome all embarrassment and stare it right down—and if pretty girls were on the bus I also learned the power of a wink to conquer all.

My father rode horses and trained people in horsemanship right up to the point where, suddenly, he changed from a slender, active, hardy man, into his seventies by then, by the onset of stumbling, loss of balance, into an invalid. He was diagnosed with cancer. It took him off rapidly. If there is dressage in heaven, I’ll know where to go to see my father. I expect to find him there, patient, inscrutable, making strange noises with his mouth, waving an arm, snapping a finger, as some young Pegasus learns his piaffe.
The picture, courtesy of Wikipedia, depicts the croupade. Other pictures, showing airs, are available at that site here. Those inclined to go deeper, herewith the web page of the United States Dressage Federation and here the web page of the Spanish Riding School; you can select English as a language there.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Terza Rima

All hope abandon if you hope to scale the peak
That Dante mastered in his own medieval time—
Unless you are prepared by effort now to seek

To learn that poet’s subtle, perfect tercet rhyme,
The early steps of which demand that you retain
The subtle a-b-a’s by means of which you climb

Your personal high Paradiso by refrain,
Your second verse, same as the first, but now the scheme
Becomes a b-c-b and so on once again

Until a thousand verses hence you’ve filled a ream
With lines, narration, pristine images galore
Neglecting not a sublime, lofty, noble theme

In which chaste caritas ranks high above amor
In which you hold converse with saintly Beatrice
Although in Hell you may have chatted with a whore.

There is but one thing more, a bit of artifice:
Your last two lines should stand alone to mark the end
And rhyme the one with next the way that couples kiss.

The last rhyme takes its sound, as you must apprehend
From the middle line above, on which it must depend.

To which I need merely add my admiration for Dorothy Sayers who did The Divine Comedy using this lofty, chained rhyme scheme, much harder to achieve in English than Italiano. And, by way of a P.S., I must note that this little instruction in how to do the terza rima is written in hexameter whereas, the authorities on high strongly recommend iambic pentameter instead, bowing to such greats as Frost, Shelley, Chaucer—and, indeed, Dante himself, although that sovereign of poetry grandly shorted five or spilled from five to six and often up to seven whenever the spirit so happened to move him.

Crossing the Rubicon

I discovered early in my career that images complement numbers and numbers strengthen images. I used to assemble data in tables and stare at them with a sense of vague dissatisfaction—then I’d reach for graph paper and start charting the numbers “to see what they looked like.” In like manner often I’d encounter a curve or bar-graph in some source, and if the image conveyed knowledge I needed, the same unease would also rise sooner or later; in those cases the search was on to find the numbers behind the graphic. In my later work—if free to do as I wished, anyway—I’ve always tried to give people like me both aspects of phenomena. Graphics draw the reader, but “people like us” would want the numbers too. I knew that then and know it still, hence I try to give at least a link to the data.

I’m not entirely sure that everyone has the same two-pronged approach to reality. If all shared my way of being, history books would feature lots of maps. They don’t. The authors are presumably masters of the maps and assume that what they know is widely shared. But I rather suspect that with exceptions (as always) most people are pretty ignorant about geography; I certainly am, flunking simple tests all the time. A good case perhaps is that famous river, Rubicon. Caesar wasn’t supposed to cross it, not in the company of troops, on his return from Gaul. But he did. In doing so he broke the Roman Republic for ever. But the question then arises, where is the Rubicon? I confess that, until this morning, I had only a vague notion (shame on me!). I put it in Northern Italy, somewhere south of Milan, intersecting some highway leading straight to Rome down the western edge of the country. Wrong!

The Rubicon turns out to be on the East coast of Italy. It’s a relatively small river; it originates in the Apennine Mountains and runs into the Adriatic. It is only 29 km in length. The Apennines run the whole length of the country (a map is here), forming Italy’s spine. The easy way of getting to Northern Italy from Rome, then as now, is to travel along the east coast of Italy, the Adriatic to your right. On the way towards Bologna, between today’s Rimini to the south and Cesena to the north flows the Rubicon still. In Caesar’s time it was the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Rome. What we call France was then Gaul; and Cisalpine Gaul was the “France on this side of the Alps,” thus on the Roman side. The map shown here, rudely annotated using Paint, gives the situation roughly. One can see the topography plainly by using Google maps, particularly its wonderful “Terrain” feature, which shows you the mountains as they are. The road system—and surely it still tracks the viae the Romans used—provides an easy crossing of the Apennines, going east to west, beginning in today’s Pescara on the Adriatic.

Some years back when circumstances (read Brigitte’s nudgings) pointed me at Thucydides, I began reading that great historian using our stand-by resource, the Great Books of the Western World. I rapidly threw in the towel, lost in a chaos of geographical references I couldn’t trace. But the text was compelling. As a consequence I discovered the best edition, and perhaps the ultimate model of how to publish history, in The Landmark Thucydides, subtitled A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler and published by The Free Press, 1996. Little maps illustrate the entire book so that, reading it, one is never lost, always oriented, and therefore the meaning is greatly enhanced.

Some people say, “I’m a visual sort of person.” I belong to that tribe. And not. Or both. As Goethe had it, “Two souls, alas! reside within my breast.” Or, perhaps, two brains mediate my understanding of the world—and one is based on pattern, picture, image, the other on the sublimely abstract and universal concept. The two, together, form one reality. It’s easy to find one or the other, difficult to find both together. Bless those who make the effort to accommodate the challenged.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

ChemCiv 101

A half-hour wait today at a dermatologist’s examination room, nothing to read, drew me to the posters on the wall. Of these the most fascinating was a rich, labeled artist’s rendering of a highly-enlarged cross section of skin, certainly the least threatening of such charts in physicians’ offices—despite the presence on this poster of insets showing dangerous melanoma.

Charts of this type draw me like magnets; their study suspends the slow motion of time in such situations. The quote from Hamlet invariably rises: What a piece of work is man. This chart had special virtues. Elements on it were also shown in successively greater detail so that, for instance, you could discover the multilayered complexity of a single hair, showing in fractal succession how complexity hides within complexity, and the end seems unattainable.

We know enough today to expect complexity in the body, but its presence in the skin is particularly impressive. Some images on the web are listed here, here, and here. The first offers the broader view; the next two reveal the multiple functions of the structures active beneath the innocent surface.

Many years ago—Brigitte was then studying at George Mason University in Virginia—I fell into her biology text and became completely fascinated. By then I’d had a rather wide exposure to human technology ranging from mechanical, chemical, to electromagnetic. I loved that book. The vast immensity of strategies used by life! It seemed to me that I had stumbled upon what soon I would call chemical civilization, the mind-boggling complexity already present in the simplest prokaryotic cell, the massive increase in complexity at the eukaryotic level, and everything else built of these structures any one of which is as vast as Chicago.

Something’s just skin deep? The human mind is very good at picking the focus of its attention and belittling what doesn’t interest it at the moment—but reality ignores this. The universe is hidden in a grain of sand. And the whole Cosmos may merely be a drop in an ocean.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

She is known to the public (if known by name at all) as the creator of a fictional detective, Lord Peter Whimsey. Most people of my generation encountered Whimsey on public TV in a series that featured several of Sayers’ novels. Whimsey was a member of the British nobility—and rich, Sayers once said, because she was so poor; so why not indulge herself and enjoy his wealth vicariously? Some of us went on to discover Sayers the writer curious what the original of those fun TV series sounded like in print. And a much smaller number, I assume, went beyond that and also discovered what might be called her contributions to the higher ranges of twentieth century culture. She contributed a new, true translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; she was a leader in educational reform; she was a feminist but from a traditional perspective; an original thinker and able defender of traditional Anglicanism; Sayers, in short was a notable person. She is one of the people I value and admire. It is through the creative efforts of people like Dorothy Sayers that we shall sail through the storms of modernism into a new era of expanding hope with our values still intact.

Sayers was long a favorite of ours—and I’d read most of her novels—when I discovered the author’s higher registers, as it were, by an indirect route. Brigitte gave me Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence for Christmas in 2000. (“To my favorite historian with love, B”). This book, which I also highly recommend as a valuable orientation to modern life, covers cultural history from 1500 to 2000. Barzun’s approach is to tell the history and then to punctuate it with brief profiles of notable figures examined in some detail. The first three such figures are Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin (whose 500th anniversary is just four days away); others are not well known, like John Lilburne (a Puritan politician) and Joseph Glanvill (an early philosopher of science); many, of course, like Oliver Cromwell, Madame de Staël, and Oliver Wendell Holmes are readily recognized. I was thus surprised and delighted to encounter Dorothy Sayers’ name in a chapter entitled “The Artist Prophet and Jester” on page 741. Here I learned, for the first time, of Sayers’ book The Mind of the Maker and almost immediately bought it. Here is Barzun’s summary:

Its thesis is that ordinary experience of making anything—creating art or applying workmanship to any object—corresponds to the meanings symbolized by the Trinity. First comes the creative Idea, which foresees the whole work as finished. This is the Father. Next the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another. This is the Son. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder. This is the Holy Spirit. All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work. [Barzun,p. 742]

Sayers was also a scholar of note, in possession of Latin, Greek, and French acquired during her education at Oxford. Her research suggested to her that she might be able to translate Dante. She set about learning Italian next and then tackled the job. She intended to reproduce Dante’s verse scheme, known as terza rima. This is a three-line form in which the first and third lines rhyme; the next tercet’s first line rhymes with the last one’s middle line. And so on it flows. Sayers translation attempts to stay true to the original. I’ll return to this in another post. She also tried to capture Dante’s humor and sarcasm. As Barzun points out, part of Dante’s purpose was to scourge his enemies and praise his friends.

Sayers completed Inferno, Purgatorio, and almost finished the last book too. But a woman’s work is never done. She died abruptly at age 64 and finished her labor, I assume, in Paradisio.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Montessori's Erdkinder

“We have called these children the ‘Erdkinder’ because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the `land-children.’ They are learning of the beginning of civilization that occurred when the tribes settled on the land and began a life of peace and progress while the nomads remained barbarians and warriors. …” [Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence]

Montessori bequeathed pedagogy with several new terms, not least her own name. She also left “the absorbent mind” and “sensitivity period,” although the latter originated with Hugo de Vries; he was the Dutch botanist who made mutation famous; she made “sensitivity period” famous. She also introduced the term Erdkinder, but her focus was on early childhood education; hence this term, used to designated those in the last years of childhood, has remained the property of specialists. Most people have never heard of Erdkinder—even in Germany, althought this is a German word.

Maria never tired of repeating that intense observation of children taught her all she knew. “Sensitivity period” arose from the observation that at different ages children have a very pronounced tendency to learn different things; in these periods their minds become absorbent and acquire experience and knowledge spontaneously, effortlessly. She suggested three periods of sensitivity (and phases within those): birth to 6, 6-12, 12-18. She developed methods and materials to optimize learning in the first two periods, but she only outlined what she saw as the ideal way to educate adolescents, the last cohort. She picked a German word for this, “earth children.” Why she chose a German word I’ve never been able to pin down, not years ago when we were much involved with the Montessori method nor even now with the help of the Internet. I think she heard the word and liked it during one of her lectures in Germany. But the word, Erdkinder, is not in general use in Germany and never has been. It is thus a technical term.

She observed that with age twelve or thereabouts, a new sensitive period begins in which the adolescent becomes keenly interested in social interaction and integration with the group. Hormonal changes disturb and also catalyze this process; emotional turmoil is a consequence; intense anxiety is an on-and-off feature; periods of withdrawal are common. These are what all of us know as the terrible teens. This is not a period, as Montessori saw it, when abstract learning attracts the child—nor a time when the relative solitude and confinement of the classroom answers to the needs of youths.

She projected an interesting—and, indeed challenging—departure for the education of children between 12 and 15 and a modified form of it for those aged 15 to 18. Children, she wrote in the work cited above, should live in a sizeable community on the land, on a farm, something analogous to a Kibbutz—but located reasonably far from the city. Not, she emphasizes, in the suburbs. Children, at this stage, should be shielded from the tense ways of city life. She imagined them spending much of their time in direct participation in the work of the farm, out there in the agricultural environment, in company with suitably trained adults. The earth children would not merely labor; they would take active part in planning the work and solving problems that arose: their participation would be comprehensive. They would also earn money. Montessori considered that an important part of socialization. She also imagined that the Erdkinder would live on the farm with those assigned to teach them.

At this age in life, she observed, children are drawn to communal forms of art, including the theater and music. She pictured them organizing and staging their own entertainments—and also continuing with academic subjects at regularly scheduled times—but always in the context of solving actual problems that arose in the work requirements of the farm. Physical labor, she believed would nicely balance the emotional turmoil produced by their maturing bodies. In the last stage (15 to 18) the formal education would intensify somewhat, but still in the context of the community’s needs. At graduation they would then be full adults, with a comprehensive preparation—be it for life, work, or additional formal education.

Montessori called this the education of the New Man. Alas, she lived before gender-neutral phraseology became de rigeur. When I think about it, I can visualize that such an educational revolution, especially if carried out without compromises, would indeed produce vastly beneficial results for society. The greening of America would have a different meaning…

In the process of checking on recent developments, I discovered that such schools have indeed been implemented up to a point. You can view a video depicting one of these schools, the Hershey Montessori Adolescent Program in Ohio, here. A cursory check shows me that such schools are also sprinkled around the world here and there. The seeds are in the ground.

I’ll leave this subject with a quote from Maria defining her method in a sentence. “I have studied the child,” she said. “I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it and that is what is called the Montessori method.”

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Statue of Liberty

They have a point, they do, our lady friends
Who’re beady-eyed to right the wrongs they say
That men have done to womankind in times
Now past. Our best known prayer, Our Father,
And His credentials in the Holy Book,
His procreative ventures with a girl,
Disguised as dove—but Zeus and Leda come
To mind (they do)—do quite support the vague
Suspicions one might dimly hold even
Before one laid aside Ms. Friedan’s work.

But they are wrong to try to make some room
For women in a stall of Augias.
We must embrace a Spirit more…somehow…
More fundamental, liberating, sane.

The French divined— they’re always first, you know—
Just how America should view its genesis.
Land of our fathers? Non. A statue they
Dispatched to these our shores, a modern sort
Of spiritual Trojan horse—a mare,
A higher Goddess for this land of
Liberty. And they erected this our
Lady looking out to sea to Europe—
From where we came with many others to
Live our lives beneath her spacious skies.

We speak of Freedom, Liberty, but we’ve
Degraded this once lofty Spirit and
Now she serves to keep our markets free—and
Speech—the last now turned into a kind of
Wild debauch of talk and ample waves of
Porn. Perhaps in future a new breath of
Courtesy shall once again awaken
Her to active functioning, and then our
Land might seek a lofty goal—beyond just
Office, greed, brief fame, celebrity.

Friday, July 3, 2009

This Conquest May Be Hazardous to Your Culture

Flet victus, victor interiit. The conquered mourns, the conqueror’s undone.
[Roman proverb]
When this old saw is carefully unpacked, a task historians routinely accomplish long after each major upheaval, it turns out that conquerors are transformed by their victories and the culture of the conquered ultimately triumphs. We speak of a Graeco-Roman culture because Rome conquered Greece in a contest that extended over fifty-five years and ended in 146 BC. In the wake of that conquest wave after wave of Hellenistic culture transformed Rome permanently. And we, mostly descendants of the barbarians who, in the late and morbid stages of the Roman Imperium, invaded and conquered Italy, absorbed its superior culture and became its inheritors by a kind of osmosis.

Remembering this sort of thing is unavoidable for folks like me who grew up head down over big thick books—and our minds filled with the nightmare from which James Joyce tried to awaken—when we note the preparations for withdrawal from Shiite Iraq just as we step up our efforts to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A while back now I read a book entitled What Is Life? written by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan in which the authors present the fascinating hypothesis that evolution proceeded in part by creature eating creature, thus by conquest, as it were. To be sure, this was not the only mechanism of change, but it is thought to be one. Ingested creatures, if small enough, may find a new home inside their eater and sink anchor into the alien soil and turn into symbionts. My own earlier excursions into the nightmare of biology (echoing Joyce) had prepared me to accept this. The presence in the cell of mitochondria, little structures with their own DNA and reproductive cycles, little oxygen-generating power plants that supply the cell’s energy, seemed to say that cells have immigrants who came from elsewhere.

Other examples from a larger scale aren’t hard to find. In the New York Times the other day (June 30, 2009) is a brief story headlined When a Hybrid Takes Hold, The Outcome Can be Bad. Hybridization. The story deals with a new hybrid salamander produced in Salinas Valley in California when barred tiger salamanders, brought to the region from Texas by bait dealers, escaped and began to mate with the native California tiger salamanders. The resulting larvae, which are the food of the California newt and the Pacific chorus frog, were radically different and nearly did in all the frogs. New hybrids are sometimes indigestible, and not just in this case.

This, in turn, reminds me of “as above, so below”—which might be extended to say, “and in the middle too.” If we don’t want our culture to change, therefore, we must avoid both conquest and absorption—and we mustn’t mate with folks our parents don’t approve of. Good luck…

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Maria Montessori

We have a long association with the Montessori Method of education—and when I say we, I mean Brigitte particularly and myself as a humble servant of her endeavors but a close and enthusiastic student of Maria Montessori’s thought, writing, and practices. Our association began in the mid-1960s. In due course Brigitte became a certified Montessori teacher and taught in a school affiliated with Avila University until we left the Kansas City area in the early 1970s.

My thoughts returned to this period doubly triggered, in part by organizing books for a move to another place; my stock taking showed me, again, our rather extensive collection of literature on the method, not least all of Montessori’s books. Another and seemingly unrelated preoccupation also played a role: thinking about the need for a national economic policy. Relating how that idea evoked Montessori I’ll save to the end.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a woman of genius in the progressive, nineteenth century mold, but firmly anchored in tradition nonetheless. She was the first female physician in modern Italy, a graduate of the University of Rome’s La Sapienza Medical School—good name, that. (Alas, humanity forgets so easily. Female doctors were the norm, not the stellar exceptions, in medieval times.) As a member of the university’s Psychiatric Clinic, she was drawn by the problem of educating retarded children. Her interest and leadership rapidly earned her appointment as the director of a school for the retarded. The methods she had devised soon led to success. Some of the children in her charge soon passed state examinations for reading and writing and did so with higher-than-average scores. In the next step she organized a school in a housing project, by invitation. This became the Casa dei Bambini, the Children’s House, the first ever Montessori school.

With some trepidation I’ll attempt to give a very brief summary of the Method. Montessori’s observations led her to the conviction that children learn spontaneously by interaction with their environment. They teach themselves. She optimized this process by offering bambini a specially prepared environment in general and specially designed teaching materials as tools. She combined this by training teachers carefully disciplined to maintain order as unobtrusively as possible, thus to protect the environment and nip conflict in the bud—and to facilitate the children’s learning not by teaching but by gentle guidance (and only when necessary) of the child’s own process of discovery.

When it is properly done—and when the surrounding society does not destroy by night what the school provides by day—this method has wonderful results. But it does require that it be implemented as designed and teachers suited by intellect, character, and temperament to stay out of the way but yet to be there to the extent necessary. The Montessori method continues to gain ground in early childhood education, but it isn’t sweeping the field and perhaps, given the human condition, shall never do so. Lucky the children who benefit. They, and others because of them, will experience the grace that came by way of Montessori into the world.

The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) has seventeen member countries, predominantly western, but the method is present in the Islamic world in Pakistan and in the Hindu world in India. The method is more widespread in some other countries than our own, but here are some statistics about the Montessori movement in the United States. In the 1993-94 period, using data from the AMI, 732 Montessori schools were active in the country. This is a much lower number than schools that use the Montessori name; it’s a free country, the method has a stellar reputation, and people can and do use it without appropriate certification. In any case these 732 schools were educating 42,800 students. In the 2000-01 period, school numbers had increased to 1,377; these schools were now educating 84,525 students. Now let’s see these numbers in context. The Montessori Method reaches from toddler up to, maximally, 12-year olds. Montessori also wrote extensively about the education of children older than twelve, but she did not form institutions for older ages; and her ideas have never been tried. Why? Several aspects of society would have to be reorganized to do justice to the good doctor’s ideas. So what is the K-through-7 population in toto? According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in a table available here, 2001 enrollment in pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 was 39 million. The category is slightly larger than applies: Grade 8 includes 13-year-olds. But taking this number, it is obvious that Montessori training is almost invisible, accounting for 0.2 percent of students.

This tells Brigitte and me just how influential people of our views generally are over against a vast culture—but that doesn’t mean that we must keep our mouths shut.

Now let me relate why thoughts about a national economic policy made me think of Montessori. It occurred to me that the guiding, optimizing effect of a “prepared environment” and of appropriately trained teachers can bring out the best in children acting spontaneously and following their innate tendencies. The thought was that much as Montessori guided children, respecting them, letting them do things that came naturally—but in a certain environment, an environment the teacher also protected from wanton damage—so also a national policy could optimize the performance of a free economic sector by guiding its actions by proper regulation and minimal but crucial guidance by government. Other nations have done better implementing concepts analogous to Montessori’s method in the larger economic sphere. Is that, perhaps, because a national consensus is more sharply focused at the top? Imagine a Montessori teacher unpredictable from day to day: one day she is authoritarian, one day aggressively laissez faire; one day she favors children whose parents are best dressed and drive the most expensive cars, another she exudes a warm-caring personality toward the most neglected of her unfortunate bambini. Indeed, from day to day, you can't really predict, and sometimes she is entirely distracted because her boyfriend is acting up. Not good, folks. But that’s how policy manifests in the U.S. of A.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Eighth

While I’m on the military thematic—see yesterday’s posting—and with the calendar helpfully cooperating, I will mark July 1 by remembering the 8th U.S. Infantry Division, which was my home for five years. Known as the Golden Arrow Division, this military formation came into being in the twentieth century and took part in World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and finally in Desert Storm. It has seen three activations. The first came in January of 1918—thus too late to do any fighting, but the division went overseas anyway. Today is the anniversary of its second activation, on July 1, 1940; the “Crazy Eights” saw some serious action in World War II, beginning with the Normandy landings. It was sent home and deactivated in 1945. When I joined the Army in 1956, the division was just being reformed at Fort Carson, Colorado, preparing for deployment to Europe under what was called Operation Gyroscope, the concept being that entire divisions would be rotated in and out of theaters of operation, ours being U.S. Army Europe (abbreviated USAREUR, pronounced as “You, sir, are.”). We went over to replace the 9th Division—but after we gyrated, the operation was evidently suspended because the 8th remained in Germany until 1992, when it was deactivated; it only sent some units to Southwest Asia to participate in Desert Storm. Thus it came about that I served in this division during the most quiet time in its entire history. Not a shot was fired anywhere during my time in the military. The most robust military activity that took place in that blessed time was a brief landing of Marines on the shores of Lebanon for a few days. That was under Eisenhower; no combat took place, no casualties. All in all I have been lucky. In many ways the Army was my real education for life; there I learned what institutions were—and how to work. My chief military activities—after learning the deadly art of lofting mortars on huge stacks of old wrecks obtained from junkyards—was to manage maneuver damage claims with my left hand while my right hand administered the complicated process under which soldiers were permitted to marry what our jargon labeled “indigenous personnel”—German women, in other words. As luck would have it, one of the cases I managed was my own marriage to Brigitte. Make love, not war. But semper be prepared!