Monday, May 31, 2010

Marking the Day

In the old world—where we come from—people celebrate Memorial Day on November 11th under various names, in the English speaking world usually as Remembrance Day. This wouldn’t be Ghulf Genes if, on such a day, I failed to note the coincidence of November 11th with the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, Martinmas. St. Martin, a fourth century figure, plays a prominent role in the life of the older members of our clan. Our formal family name is Szentmartoni Darnay; translated directly from the Hungarian that means “Darnay of St. Marin.” St. Martin was born in Pannonia, the name by which the Romans called what later became Hungary. He came from Savaria (Szombathely) on the western edge of Hungary, where my family had sunk down its Hungarian roots after drifting east from German lands in anno long ago. Martin was a soldier who wandered West, like we did, became a monk, and died in Tours, in France. Now by sheer coincidence (if there is such a thing) when our daughter, Michelle, applied as a student for a year’s stay in France under the AFS foreign exchange program (that program itself a product of war, on which subject see more here), she was assigned to a family in Tours, France. And later yet, when she returned to France to study there, she settled in Tours again and lived within three blocks of St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old, medieval part of the city.

We have our own November 11th holiday in this country, Veteran’s Day. But as Wikipedia rightly suggests, our May memorial is more akin in spirit to Remembrance Day as celebrated in the old world. There it is a day on which, as Brigitte remembers, it was customary to visit cemeteries to remember the departed. My father barely escaped death on the battle field; one of his brothers, Lászlo, died in that war. My mother lost her youngest brother, Loli. Loli gave me an ingenious, small wind-up elephant—it could walk across the table—about four weeks before the battle field claimed him. Brigitte lost an uncle, Fritz, her cousin her husband-to-be, Otto. All of these men fell in World War II—and on the other side. We remember them still with that strange quiet that time brings. And it is well to remember that all sides have memories. Since then, although men have served under arms—and a great-grand-son of ours does today—we have been spared the ultimate sacrifice, for which we give thanks—even as we reach out to those who still lose sons and daughters to the unending conflict of this earthly realm.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Toss of the Bones

At intervals of a decade or so, drawings of hairy ape-like precursors of humanity appear in the papers. They are older and older in origin, but, you might say, perpetually young. Today I turned the page of the Free Press and there was Ardi in frontal view, stark naked, the arms reaching down so that her fingertips could touch her knee (mine are much shorter). Her feet have “thumbs” you might say. Her small face has an assertive sort of look as if to say, “You’ve got a problem with that?” No, Ardi, I don’t—but I do wonder, every decade or so.

Ardi is Ardipithecus ramidus, discovered in 1992, but it took two decades plus for the drawing to appear. Ardi is thought to have lived 4.4 million years ago, thus to be an earlier fossil than her rival Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago.

Images like this always make me wonder: How do they know? What did the digging anthropologists actually see? The newspapers, informed by a laudable motive to engage the reader in wonder and admiration, almost never treat us to the rawer sorts of data—although these data are, of course available to the more intensely curious. Herewith then I present photos of the bones actually found for both of these very ancient ladies:

As is quite evident, in the field of reconstructing the origins of humanity, imagination, huge leaps of faith, and lots of fanciful theory play a much greater role than simple observation. Thus, for instance, in both of these cases, the scientists inferred from the bones you see before you here that Lucy and Ardi must both have walked upright. Movement on two limbs, rather than four, is taken to be proof of human origin—provided, of course, that the forelimbs aren’t wings; lots of birds walk on two feet too. When I begin to delve into the details of this field—which is something I rather enjoy doing—I always feel in very good company. Novelists, especially science fiction writers, have a lot in common with fossilists. Both are obliged to stick to the broad patterns of observable reality in their inventions, but, within those boundaries, hey, the sky’s the limit. Thus one nods with fascination over such inferences as the one, for instance, that smaller canine teeth means more muted male rivalry over female favors, the emergence of pair-bonding, and more intense devotion to child care—as suggested in an October 2, 2009 article in Science which comments on Ardi. It occurs to me that the artist, commissioned to render Ardi, got her facial expression wrong. Maybe Ardi looked much more loving, like Lucy. Plenty to ponder on my Sunday walk.
Picture credits Science except for the skeleton of Lucy, which is from Wikipedia.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Voting for the Weather

The first decennial census in the Unite States took place in 1790. The results of that count were used then, as they still are, to apportion congressional seats and to define congressional districts of roughly the same size, emphasis on roughly: people will settle in clusters and drawing perfect boundaries isn’t always practical. That year, for instance the third congressional district of Virginia had a population of 30,145, the fourth district of Maryland 53,913. The average population of a congressional district was 33,000 people. Slavery existed in those days; slaves weren’t counted until 1850. That’s a dark subject but not central to my point today. The gross numbers are.

In attempts to make that eighteenth century situation personal, I toted up the population of my current neighborhood, the so-called Grosse Pointes in Michigan (some four communities). These had a population of 44,283 in the 2000 census. Now I can reach the boundaries of this area on foot in any direction in under an hour-and-half. The major centers of this area, places where people might engage in political action, are a good deal closer. If this were a farming community and therefore much more dispersed, reaching its centers, its markets, would take a good deal more time, but not that much more—and I’d have the use of a horse. The congressional district, therefore would seem to be at the right scale, certainly accessible. I’d be a cipher, to be sure, 1 of 44,000, but, well, that is a graspable segment of the collective; adults would be roughly half of that number today, probably less than a third in 1790.

Our current congressional district, the thirteenth, had a 2000 population of 662,563. We moved here from the fifth district of Minnesota, where the population in 2000 had been 614,935. The average congressional district’s population is today 646,000—omitting the very thinly populated states where the districts are much bigger. Now one voice in 33,000 (the 1790 situation) is more easily heard than one voice in 646,000. To give it some magnitude, the modern voice is muted by a factor of 20! If we view this ratio from the perspective of the candidate for office, it is at least 20 times more costly for the candidate to be heard—meaning that it will cost a great deal more money today than it did in the eighteenth century. Sticking to averages, and comparing the costs of sending a single letter to every person in each district (okay, even babies get letters), it would cost to $14,190 to reach a 1790-sized district—and $277,780 to reach a district today. That’s in today’s dollars and using today’s postage for a first-class letter.

To give this some visual impact, I include here a graphic that shows the two districts in a bar chart, with my own Grosse Pointes placed in the middle and colored true blue.

Now let me add a few more observations. The Minnesota-fifth and the Michigan-thirteenth are alike. Both are urban centers where our location was or is on the edge. In both one party rules and elections are decided in primaries—when they are contested at all. Our representatives must deal with complexities the eighteenth century couldn’t even dream of—such as (to grab wildly at random) nuclear proliferation, stem cell research, and petroleum floods of whole coast-lines. The ability of the average person to understand these issues in a comprehensive way has probably diminished by more than twenty-fold. The huge numbers imply a great mixing of many different kinds of people, the vast majority of whom are ill-educated. Here I might add, parenthetically, that the folks in Montana (whose single district has 902,000 inhabitants) or the folks in South Dakota (with one district of 755,000 people) are heard even more faintly.

These are some, but by no means all, of the structural underpinnings of a system where democratic politics absolutely demands vast amounts of money, where an Electoral Industry is active at all times, where fundraising is continuous, and where the issues must be abstracted to such an extent, even to be heard, that they shrink to almost meaningless tokens. Any feeling of genuine participation in public governance, already fairly minimal in a district of, say, 44,000 people, is altogether lost—unless we make it an active and semi-professional avocation. The touch of one-six-hundred-and-forty-six-thousandth of the population is not exactly felt by a representative. Intermediate structures, therefore, develop to bring pressure to bear. These groups are not elected; they are self-appointed; and they also require money to maintain. Here I am showing straightforward quantitative descriptions of the system; and the description omits all of the detail. But what such data show, at the bottom of the cup, is the reason for uproars of discontent—and also why these voices often sound so ignorant. Voting for the weather may seem a much more rational activity, these days, than voting for people who, supposedly, represent our interests.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Maple Rain

It’s raining maple seeds. The grand old silver maple next door is once more bestowing its wondrous propeller-shaped seedlings to the ground, twirling, twirling as they fall. For years now, sitting out there, I have picked up these intricate objects to examine them up close. They’re wondrously made, extraordinary products, hiding a vividly green seed-flesh in the egg-shaped tip that unfailingly lands point first into soft earth.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artificial Life v. Artificial Knees

Ever since the announcement (here) on May 20 that The J. Craig Venter Institute had produced a synthetic genome and inserted it into an already living bacterium to replace its homegrown DNA, news stories have reported this event as the creation of artificial life and then, quite rapidly, without missing a beat, you might say, moved right on to a discussion about the rights and wrongs of letting Venter patent such “life.” Here I simply want to note that replacing some element of a living organism is not exactly news. What Venter and his team have done—and what is news—is to replace a very complex element of a bacterium, namely the coding that defines the chemicals that make up the bacterium’s working parts. The DNA, although synthesized from chemicals, still has the same information as the original code—plus some “watermarks” to show the intervention. DNA is chemically coded information; if it’s missing something the bacterium needs, the bacterium dies.  DNA isn’t life; it is a tool of life. So is a knee. Millions of people go about their business with artificial knees, not least my partner for life. The artificial life issue has everything in common with the artificial intelligence issue; there, as yet, we don’t even have good imitations. I reserve my astonishment and wonder for that time (should it ever actually arrive) when scientists in sealed suits are locked into clean-rooms filled with appropriate inorganic chemicals in thousands and thousands of bottles and proceed to produce an actual living bacterium from scratch—thus from the inorganic chemicals. Sealed suits? Yes. We wouldn’t want them surreptitiously to borrow an actual living cell from their own bodies in the process. Better yet, why not lock artificially intelligent robots into that room instead of humans? That would be the perfect test. We’re getting smart enough to tinker with life. To make it from scratch is something else.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Where's that Handicapper General?

The true equality of the sexes will arrive when the number of bald women will equal the number of bald men.

Friday, May 21, 2010

From the private diary…

I am not a social critic. I don’t honestly believe rant-journalism does any good and think that it’s a nasty sort of entertainment. Why then do I indulge in it myself?

The clue is that an inherent problem plagues certain kinds of public blogging. I noticed, for example, that, of late, political commentary has begun to flourish on the Maverick Philosopher. Daily posting exhausts human resources. None of us is all that interesting or original; hence we reach for public issues when inspiration lags. Daily irritation with the culture is always there as stimulus—unless we’ve genuinely mastered a “media fast.” Countless blogs express this oceanic discontent. The majority rant leftways, the minority right. Neither is all that appetizing. Yield, by all means, to the temptations of silence. Now there is something worth thinking about…

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Wonders

Back in 1960, thus just before we returned to the United States from Germany as a family, Brigitte and I saw a television series entitled Am Grünen Strand der Spree. It was in five parts, in black and white; it was almost exclusively a conversation around a table. On the Green Strand of the Spree. The Spree begins in Czechoslovakia, runs north and west, through Berlin, joins the Havel, a river that eventually feeds the Elbe. A panoramic view of it in Berlin is available here. To watch this series was a wonder. There is no action, no color, no special effects—yet Brigitte and I think now, and have felt ever since we saw it, that it was the best TV series we’d ever, ever seen.

The series popped into Brigitte’s mind yesterday, and we went to see what traces of that series might remain. First, we found that we were not alone. Fifty years hence voluminous comments on the web echo everything we felt and feel about this magical series. Next we discovered that it is available! Yes, today. In a five-disk presentation on CD. From, the German Amazon. Amazing. Somewhat intimidated, I set about to see if I could order it from way over there somewhere. Fifteen minutes later, I had e-mail confirmation that my Visa card spoke Euro well enough, and that UPS could transport across the ocean rapidly—the package is supposed to arrive tomorrow already! That is Wonder Number One.

Wonder Number Two is more difficult to put in words. Here is an artistic creation that has never been rendered into English. It is enfolded in sounds that you must be able to understand before its very complex meaning can reach the chest. And that produces a certain sadness. We can recapture the experience five decades later—but we cannot effectively share it. Life presents many such experiences when we ponder the matter. Sometimes veils are present through which it is impossible to see…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The White and Yolk of the Cosmic Egg

Creation myths probably have this in common. First, they sound reasonable within their own cultures because children learn them and get used to them. As  they grow up they shrug off the odd or primitive features of the myth but retain their essence. That essence is the feeling of wonder the children had when they first heard the tale. That essence has value for life. It’s a poetic truth. Second, to people in other cultures the same creation myths will sound humorous, illogical, charming, or like some ordinary explanation wrapped in myth: motherhood, craftsmanship, kingship. If the foreign culture is wealthy and dangerous, the myth must be scorned. If the culture is backward and weak, a patronizing smile's in oder.

But do humans really have a clue? We use words like time, space, and eternity. These are sounds assigned to enigmas. Their definitions are circular. If matter produces both space and time, the child wants to know what is outside of space? And the child also insists on knowing: What happened before time began? If time began with the Big Bang, what caused that bang to bang? What’s it like to be outside of time? The child is right.

Last Friday at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory a talk revealed something old and something new. Collision experiments have seemingly confirmed a bias in nature already long a doctrine within physics, namely that particles are ever-so-slightly favored over anti-particles. As this news now reaches the laity, the press commits cosmology, as in this sentence in the New York Times today:

According to the basic precept of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us. And yet we exist, and physicists (among others) would dearly like to know why.
Well, the physicists already know the answer. If particles are the yolk and antiparticles the white of the cosmic egg (the one Pan Gu found himself inside “in the beginning” according to the Chinese creation myth) then there was more yolk than white. End of story.

The point here? Our myths don’t sound like myths. They sound awesome and sophisticated. But we no more explain what gave rise to the Big Bang than the Chinese myth explains how the cosmic egg came into being. We claim to understand what happened in the earliest nanoseconds of the Big Bang—an event we presume happened because the most distant stars and galaxies appear to be receding from us faster than other stars and galaxies. Yet some nearby galaxies are coming toward us, which seems odd if all things are moving away from all other things. We are amazed by the prevalence of matter over antimatter only because our theories teach us that they ought to have occurred in equal quantities. But that a Big Bang actually happened is an unprovable hypothesis.

Francis Crick, venerated in biology as Einstein is in physics, was, with James Watson, the discoverer of the structure of DNA. (Rosalind Franklin, who crucially discerned DNA’s shape, gets mention but not credit.) But Crick could not imagine how life could have originated on earth. Hence he embraced a theory of panspermia, the notion that life was seeded here from elsewhere. Where explanation fails, myth will serve.

The myths of the future will undoubtedly continue to be, like all myth, culturally sanctioned approximations—resonating with the character of the cultures that will hold them. But ours will also, in some future time, get the patronizing smile—the more so because, swallowed by the past, as we shall then be, we shall neither inspire awe nor threaten those who smile.

Swallowed by the past? Well, yes. I imagine Time to be this, this huge, monstrous Snake, its body stretching back into eternity. We live our lives in its huge maw, and all our troubles are explained because the Snake is chewing, chewing, chewing. And swallowing. And as it swallows, we slide down its slimy gullet into its infinitely huge belly, which is what we might call “the past.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Experienced from Hidden Depths...

Sometimes I’m reminded how problematic it really is to view other societies from a distance—entirely through the filtering and abstracting lenses of the media. The feeling typically arises when I’m watching a genuinely good documentary or a foreign film, a film that its director made for another public, not ours, never even dreaming that it might actually be shown in America. Pictures from Persia have frequently had this effect on me. Suddenly I’m keenly aware not only how life in Iran is seen and felt but also—and seen through Iranian eyes—how diverse and surprising, for Iranians, it might be to see how their own rural populations live.

And in my mind I add to this a note or two. I’m actually experienced in this. I’ve been a rolling stone, rolling from Hungary to the altogether different environment of Germany, then from Bavaria to Saxony, from there to America. There was a time once in my life when I genuinely pictured America filled with cowboys and Indians—and when arrival in Kansas City, MO by night—our future home—shocked and depressed me. I arrived in the by now long-forgotten days when Neon Owned the Night, and the city didn’t look at all like the Wild West, not even the dark shadow of a buffalo in sight. Mind you, I was fifteen. And mind you, further, that I was plenty smart. The glittery intellectual surface was not in the least surprised, but deeper down we are—really we are—much more complex and strange beings, and something in my depth revolted at the trivialization of my imagination.

Now all this comes to mind when I’m forced to contemplate—through Afghanistani, Pakistani, or Yemeni eyes—and not urban eyes presumably already jaded by modernity—the impression that America produces by drones and mayhem that might have killed people known to me, a village over, say. And what this sort of thing does to fifteen-year olds there, who later, indeed soon—these wars have been dragging right along—are twenty-five-year-olds. Twenty-five-year-olds whose glittery intellectual surface may be entirely up-to-date but whose dark and archetypal depths do not approve and produce chthonic emotional upheavals. Is it to be wondered at that such experiences produce what we contemptuously label terrorism? As if we were, in our depths, superior to it?

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Information isn’t wisdom. Wisdom is a fusion of values, experience—and information.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Trailer for the Dark Ages

Trailers are misnamed—because they’re really previews. Having just recently noted virginal Miranda under assault by our AG, today the New York Times leads a front page story (bottom left corner) with: “The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes…”

“Killing” is a refreshingly direct expression—and shorter than “assassination.” Now I sort of wonder when, precisely, it became a shrug-off to kill or assassinate non-citizens? When, precisely, did “regime change” become a legitimate enterprise, used almost with the same causally neutral tonality as “changing my underwear”? When Saddam Hussein decided on “regime change” in Kuwait, why the global uproar? Or is “regime change” only the prerogative of the most powerful?

When and how did the concept of human rights morph into a more nuanced, delicate, shall we say sophisticated distinction between citizen rights and those of “lesser people”? And only briefly. Because our concept of citizenship is itself involved in an eye-blurringly rapid transformation, under which citizenship is in the eye of the beholder, namely the eye of the cop on the beat, say in the State of Arizona or in a CIA-eye staring at a screen in one of the Carolinas as it directs a drone over the wastes of Yemen.

But if the trailer thrills you—be assured that there is much, much more to come. To a theater near you. Or even right at you, right through the door, unannounced, innocently cybernetic, unaware of its own explosive nose.

Trailers were named that because, although previews of coming attractions, they were spliced to the tail of movies.

Added Later:

Brigitte points out, having read the above, that these matters are calmly, seriously, learnedly, analytically discussed on C-Span and PBS with nary a sign of emotion. Sometimes the measured, scholarly tone is jarringly out of place. All this is madness. Really. This is not a case of developing the “policy implications,” the “international reactions,” the “political consequences” of the obvious and scary incoherence of slashing amorality everywhere. These matters are actually and seriously dangerous. They are.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fuzz is Fine

If the image isn’t blurry, a slightly fuzzy photo’s fine.
From a distance skin has an angelic surface. From up close it
Looks like a terrain seen from the air, flying a plane. Magic comes
From distance, not from nearness—if we consult the eye. A baby’s
Features turn right geologic as we magnify the view and
Thus descend to levels where almost invisibly tiny hairs
Become the stark, rough, woody, all too grown-up trunks of massive trees.

Picture of human skin courtesy of here.
Picture of human hair courtesy of here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stone Motto -- REVEALED!

No sooner wished than received. Herewith, then, the final word on that inscription. I have these pictures thanks to Joe Mills, Dunbarton Oaks' own photographer. The motto is on the outer circle of the figure, shown in the last post and, again, enlarged, in the last of this particular set.

As Brandon points out in his comment to the last post, I might very well have misread the words on the fourth photograph shown, especially with a mind that, in those days, was much focused on the gearing of our economy...

Thank you, Joe! Thank you, Dunbarton Oaks. This subject is, finally, set in stone, you might say!

Stone Motto Revisited ... Revised

Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit. Sollte man ihn nicht unergründlich nennen?
Deep is the well of the past. Shouldn’t we call it bottomless?
        [Thomas Mann, opening line of Joseph and His Brothers]
Thanks to Brigitte’s slow-working but extraordinary memory, I humbly return to two earlier postings here and here. Both dealt with a stone inscription somewhere in Georgetown, in Washington, DC. These posts were made on February 11 and 12. Three months later, on May 7, as I sat down to each my lunch, Brigitte settled across from me at our sunroom table and, her elbow on the table, her chin resting on her hand, she looked at me and said: “That stone motto, you know, the Maker of the Wheel?” I nodded. She went on. “Well, I woke up this morning, and I suddenly had it. The place where we saw it? The name of that place? It was there as I woke up. It was—Dumbarton Oaks!”

This stunned me. I simply knew that she was right—but still had no idea what that place was, beyond knowing it to be a library, a foundation. We had a brief talk about the mysteries of memory—how this name could possibly resurface and how my own could immediately assent, recognizing it but still failing to fetch much else. After that—this is the Age of the Web—I went to discover the details.

The upshot of this is that Brandon Watson of Siris fame—who responded to my February plea regarding the origin of that saying—turns out to have been dead on. And my insistence on the phrasing, assertively repeated in my comment on his, turned out to be dead wrong. Alas. Now it is time to set things right.

My remembered version was:
Oh Ye Maker of the Wheel
That Geareth the Heavens
And tourneth the Starres
In a Ravishing Sway.
The chief difference, here, of course, is my remembering gearing of the heavens and Brandon suggesting that the wheel was bearing, not gearing. Brandon was sure that the actual text came from Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, specifically:
Oh thou maker of the whele that bereth the sterres,
which that art fastned to thi perdurable chayre,
turnest the hevene with a ravyssyng sweighe
and constreinest the sterres to suffren thi law.
Obviously I had to agree. Having become doubtful therefore, I now went looking for Dumbarton Oaks on the web and found it here; next I applied by e-mail to Christine Blazina, that institution’s Docent Coordinator. I sent her my version and asked for the actual wording. Graciously, and rapidly, she responded as follows:
The inscription: “O thou maker of the whele that Bereth the sterres and tornest the hevene with a ravisshing sweigh” is from Chaucer’s Translation of Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a fascinating historical figure, philosopher, and statesman. This inscription is in the center of our Star Garden, a small garden lined with Azaleas and adjacent to the rear of the house, west of the Green Garden and Orangery. The lead saying is found surrounding the paved circle with the figures of Aries, Capricorn, Pegasus and Phoenix in it. It is a beautiful and peaceful space.
Well, well, well. Humbled. Okay, that “gearing” was obviously my own invention, transformation, updating of that ancient vision—you might say my own poetic license—either in originally copying the text or later, the slip having been lost, remembering what I had copied.

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy has had a remarkable life, when you think about it. It was one of the most printed and translated secular works of antiquity in medieval times. In the second post referenced above, I showed Walter John Sedgefield’s 1900 translation of Boethius’ line as:
THOU Creator of heaven and earth, that rulest on the eternal throne, Thou that makest the heavens to turn in swift course, and the stars to obey Thee, and the sun with his shining beams to quench the darkness of black night…
In 1902 W.V. Cooper rendered it thus:
Founder of the star-studded universe, resting on Thine eternal throne whence Thou turnest the swiftly rolling sky, and bindest the stars to keep Thy law.
The Dumbarton Oaks people used a shortened version of Chaucer’s, omitting the phrase “which that art y-fastned to thy perdurable chayer.” By industrializing the phrase, substituting gearing for bearing, I thus join a long line of modifiers and translators of ancient texts. Which suggests the foolhardiness of literalism in the use of humanity’s written deposit. The amazing thing here, I would submit, is really the reach of memory, which Brigitte demonstrated on that night of May 6 and 7, recalling Dumbarton Oaks and thus correcting an impression made a ways down in that deep well of the past.

The picture, incidentally, shows the stone structure that bears this inscription around the inner or the outer circle. I cannot make out where, but I might get a better image from Dumbarton Oaks before long. If I do, I’ll revisit this subject yet again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Mystery Genre...

…attracts me because life is a mystery too, but the good authors make it accessible, respect my sense for good and evil, and reward me with a satisfying resolution now. From the genuinely gifted I learn things without awareness of learning. The realization comes at a distance later on.

Observing a Mother's Day Tradition

Visiting Wiegands, a Mother's day tradition. Here Daughter and Mother at work. More pictures on LaMarotte here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ice Cream Truck Song

I heard the ice cream truck for the first time today! Brigitte had heard it earlier, but then she refuses to make a blog—which, I assure you, would be vastly more entertaining than mine. So I’m here to give you a smile or two in her name. First, here is a YouTube of the song played expertly on the piano by a young man. And here it is played by little Olivia…

One Man's Principle, Another's Convenience

Attorney General Eric Holder suggested yesterday that Congress should ease up on self-incrimination statutes (the so-called Miranda rule) in cases involving terrorism—so that law enforcement shall have more “flexibility.” The Supreme Court’s Miranda decision rests on a constitutional right in the Fifth Amendment—to wit: “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself….”—and the right to a lawyer, which appears in the Sixth Amendment: “[T]he accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

The presumption behind the language of the amendments (and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of them) is that a principle is involved rooted in fundamental human rights. So at least I understand it, so I would feel myself compelled to explain it if I were teaching this matter in school. We must draw our laws from some kind of fundamental and absolute conception of rights.

But the justification Holder offers for weakening this rule is that of convenience. The New York Times quotes him as saying: “We’re now dealing with international terrorists, and I think that we have to think about perhaps modifying the rules that interrogators have and somehow coming up with something that is flexible and is more consistent with the threat that we now face.”

This is as nice an example of relativism in ethics as I could wish. And, as such, it is ultimately of the same family, genus, and species as terrorism itself. Because this side-stepping of principle, however small the step, is the abandonment of principle. It says that we shall adhere to our values—when it suits us. And we shall, behind the veils of legislative gestures, abandon them when it suits us.

The way I understand this initiative is that “anything goes.” If those in power can pick and choose which principles they must observe, based only on the sanction of a shifting majority of votes—why then, folks, what they can do, anyone can do. But that’s precisely the ideology behind the terrorist threat—an absolute assertion that the only principle is force. The terrorists use it stealthily, we use it legislatively. In turn that means that we’re no longer a nation of laws—or that we choose to redefine what “law” means. A principled rule becomes a chameleon-like continuous shifting of responses in flexible adaptation to whatever happens. If people are going out to buy guns, I can only nod my approval.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Those Enduring Divisions

Watching Mike Wallace briefly on C-Span yesterday (the man was born in 1918 and is still going strong!) got me thinking about journalism. The thought that came was: Journalism, the Media—that’s really a modern sort of thing, isn’t it? The Romans had no media, did they. Did the Egyptians, the Chinese? Next came the memory that once—before the term “media” surfaced—we spoke of journalism as the Fourth Estate. The others (memory of which obviously suggested this fourth) were the Clergy, Nobility, and Peasantry. And thinking of these three suggested the castes of India.

Being on one’s daily walk one can’t reach for the keyboard, and all I could remember was the Brahmins—and that the name of the warrior caste started with a K. But it seemed to me that there were more than three. I confirmed this later. Brahmins (teachers, scholars, priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers, warriors), Vaishyas (landowners, traders), Shudras (craftsmen and servants of all kinds), and, beneath the salt, as it were, not even viewed as a caste, were the Parjana (the Untouchables).

Now I was off and running. Interesting subject. It seemed to me that the younger a culture the fewer its estates. Japan, it seemed to me, only had had two, possibly three: the warriors (samurai) and the peasants. The high regard in which the Japanese held (and still hold) the the wise old man might be a stand-in for the clergy. But the formal clergy, it seemed to me, the Shinto clergy, hadn’t had much heft; it was a kind of ritual craft. The clergy, as an estate, did not emerge until Buddhism came and it became fashionable for famous men of the nobility to end their life as monks with shaven heads. I left the resolution of this for later, my ignorance being deep, and went on. The older a culture the more its estates differentiate, I thought, until it seems as if they’d disappeared—but that’s just an illusion, isn’t it? There are too many orders and too sharply differentiated. With that I began to outline the caste system of our Modernity, my mind still linked back by a thread to the notion that began my reflections, wondering where I should place Mike Wallace in the hierarchy of castes.

Well, let’s start at the top, with Academia—people who think, who deal in concepts, words. But this class, while it includes the scientists as well, is not yet all of what we once classified as “clergy.” We have to add all teachers—the whole huge educational sector. We have to include the clergy itself, its ministers and priests. We have to add the upper layer of the legal profession—law professors, judges. And, to be sure, we really should include in this class the totality of the Media. It makes sense. Its professionals deal in words, in concepts. Its most achieved—its columnists and editorial writers—are in the persuasion game; they too are missionaries. And we might label this entire structure the Intelligentsia. Now, of course, it might seem odd to assign a group that features paparazzi, grubby cub reporters, and substitute teachers into so exalted an estate—but here we might recall that, in medieval times, the Clergy itself included mendicant monks and sister. Within each estate, as I will emphasize later, the total layering of society is once more reproduced. There is an intelligentsia within the Intelligentsia; it has its own “rulers”; and its lowest class mirrors the bottom, if not the very bottom, of society.

The next layer is also mixed and organized in layers. At its summit are politicians and politically appointed and confirmed high level administrative and military leaders. The middle level is the administrative apparatus of power, the agencies, the civil services—the great departments of the state, including the Pentagon. And at the lowest are those who carry out the will of the nobility—the armed forces, police, FBI agents, border guards, etc., etc. All those who are members of this estate ultimately deal with force and its application, whether it is expressed in abstract concepts or as actual physical might. Thus the person who actually turns the switch at an electrocution or administers poison with a needle is as much a member of the “nobility” as is the president, senator, four-star general, or cabinet secretary. Here, too, the high-to-low functionalities of the greater society are once more reproduced.

Where should I place the medical profession—indeed, more broadly, the helping professions? I would divide them between the first two presented up to this point. They represent deep knowledge in the first, the estate of the mind; they represent its application for the benefit of all, in the second, the nobility of force. And the elements that—unfortunately for us, today—manages its financial base, I would assign to the third estate, the estate of ownership. The description of that order comes next.

This third estate represents our own Vaishyas, our owners of productive property (great or small) and our traders. This is the business class. At its top are the great banking firms and multinationals; its middle class are all manner of corporations; small business and farmers form its proletariat; this layer’s humility is clearly indicated by the fact that it is treated with a patronizing benevolence by the Intelligentsia and the Nobility. Our social tensions are in part explained by the unusually high power exercised by this, our third estate (in modern not medieval definition). But I would point out that it was Congress that called Goldman Sachs before its bench. Senator Levin sat higher than Lloyd Blankfein, looked down on Blankfein—while Blankfein looked up at Levin. This arrangement tells us all we need to know. To be sure, within his own estate, Blankfein is at the top. But in the social order he cannot command a Senator Levin to appear before a panel of investment bankers convened on Wall Street. The central focus of this estate is money. Yes, money is another form of power, but in the arrangements of humanity, ultimately, force ranks money and mind ranks force. It might not seem like that, but it’s the truth. All of our worst problem are traceable to false conceptions of reality—and the formation of ideas is the clergy’s responsibility. They have the gift—and therefore the duty—to get this one right!

But we’re not yet done. We have two more orders to go—but the last one no more counts as an estate with us than it did with the Hindus. We have the class that works. Here the telling difference is jobs. If you have one, you are a member of this class. If you lose it, you’re in trouble. And, yes, things do become complicated here. That is because the work is always performed for, and under the supervision of, the three orders that lie above, the orders of thought, of force, of ownership. But at this level what matters is the job. Within this order, too, a hierarchy extends from high level jobs rich with skill and education down to the miserable labors at the bottom of the mine. At, at the bottom, some members of this class earn so little, or so infrequently, that they form a kind of shadowy transition zone between this, the last estate, and the next, the one beyond the pale.

And that last one, alas, consists of our own Untouchables, a class we sometimes we call the Underclass. These are also our Unfortunates. Whatever their background, race, or history, they have one thing in common. They are outside the caste system. But why do I say that?

As I’ve already begun to say above, the curious aspect of our modern society is that every estate reflects the total in miniature. Thus, for instance, there is a business intelligentsia within the business class; there is also an executive layer, its chiefs and rulers; and it has its own functionaries, workers, and laborers. The bottom layers have dual citizenship, estateship: nominally they belong to the estate in which they work; actually they belong into the Laboring Estate. We find the same pattern with the Intelligentsia as well—and in the working class. One thinks of tenured professors, department heads and presidents of universities, one thinks of teaching assistants, of lab assistants. One thinks of unions and union stewards, of publishers, editors, reporters, and of stringers. And so on. But the underclass is absent in these hierarchical arrangements—absent, absent, absent. Sometimes their members are briefly permitted to labor, like the Indian untouchables, to do the dirtiest work for next to nothing. But on the whole, they are outside even of the lowest ranks of the four big estates.

Now all this—as history surely teaches—is nature. All this comes about. All we are permitted to do is name it when we see it. But we can also judge it. Each of these classes has its legitimacy—except the fifth. And each has the duty of doing its job right. It might surprise some to see me classify journalism so high, into the top estate in terms of responsibility. But the complaint arises not because of the placement of journalism but because the profession falls short of its appointed role. When it performs its job, we don’t berate its behavior.

Strange vistas… There’s always more to say, but my walk is ending; the thoughts begin to fray. It’ll soon be time for dinner. But in this process I did manage to get a fairly good idea of what Mike Wallace is all about. I understand now why, in remembering his deep past, Wallace talked there, to that audience, about the nobility of his profession, which, as he put it, was to be a servant of the truth. Spoken like a member of his true estate. Yes, spoken like a clergyman.
Image credit is Wikipedia.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Words as Organs

One of my walks around here, the one to the south and to the east, invariably produces more interesting thoughts—and many more rabbits. Sometimes I wonder if planetary alignments have something to do with that? In any case, the other day, it struck me that words might be seen as organs—limited instrumentalities that enable greater wholes to function. And while my emphasis here is on limited, the context is meanings; limited, therefore, does not exclude other notions such as concentration or resonance. Take a word like diaspora. Now there’s a pregnant word with vast meanings highly concentrated and with all manner of resonance. But the word is restricted. Its resonance does not readily produce, say, a word like turnip or concerto.

Thinking of words as organs, thus as alive with meanings, suggests that, like us, they also have a body and a soul. The body is a unique sound or sequence of letters; the soul is attached to this underlying structure as its meaning. Now the interesting thing about this particular body-soul duality is that in this case the body survives and may support a succession of souls, whereas (especially in systems that hold with metempsychosis) the human body perishes whereas the soul just keeps on going. Thus words can change their meanings, and in doing so make language extraordinarily fluid. Brandon on Siris addressed this subject yesterday regarding the meaning of “event.” I keep examining words in this manner too, most recently tackling “complexity.” To extend the body-soul image further, word-bodies easily support more than one soul. A race for instance may be a competition or a subspecies.

My walk the other day, however, meandered in the direction of life. I thought about the life of language, and the greater wholes that the endlessly many organs of language engender—from simple thoughts that, to become concrete, need to be embodied in words on up to grand structures of meaning in which vast numbers of hardworking organs together produce a symphony. But it is odd, when you put it like this, to think of a word like liposuction as serving a purpose functionally equivalent to that of some organ in the body—like our liver. And it also makes you realize how much grander the vistas of thought are than the bodies in which they take place and which support them.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Watching from a Distance

Sometimes when I watch you, you seem like the same person that I once knew.
And watch from a distance, but never able to do more than I ever would.
Looking at you, I find again I am starving in your mystery.
So far away and some kind of helplessness.
          [Metal Storm]
Yesterday I read an article titled “Publish or Perish” by Ken Auletta in the April 26 issue of The New Yorker. Hat tip here goes to Joyce Simkin who alerted our circle to this fascinating eruption (I’m inclined to call it that, but don’t ask me why) about the iPad and the Kindle, the larger-than-life figures of Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and assorted dukes of actual publishing, I mean of actual books. An odd feeling stole over me as I read, the sort of feeling no doubt common to people in their seventies, a sensation of distance, of watching something from far away while yet moving still farther from it.

My sensation of floating, of rising up into the air, of a stratospheric view of something down below, at the same time suggests the exact contrary—namely that of an industry that has begun to levitate and, in so doing, is creating a distance between a man sitting on a white plastic chair next to the green grass in the back while it, the business, the distribution system, is gradually thinning on me as it rises up, up, up into a cloudless sky.

In this story the book business is all too real but books, alas, have disappeared. The title of a P.D. James novel comes to mind, Devices and Desires. The devices are electronic and have nicknames characteristic of the times (“the Jesus tablet” for the iPad). It might also be called Prices and Devices; numbers with dollar signs, each indicating a book price, appear fifteen times in the article, eight times citing the figure of $9.99, the dreaded (or desired) standard price for a book delivered to your device wirelessly, and now in color, in sixty seconds or less.

Inversions are on my mind of late, that transvaluation of values some have labeled Nietzsche’s “moral breakthrough.” The article of my focus today presents an instance of such a transvaluation (but I’m not knocking Ken Auletta, far from it—his choice of subject is straight-forward; he is, after all, talking about the book business, not about books, and he isn’t kowtowing or pulling punches). The transvaluation lies in the fact that we now spend so much time and effort talking about the trade in books. Our heroes are the giants of trade. The transvaluation actually takes place when the trade transforms the object (and its buyers) to serve its own desires—rather than performing its humbler role of simply delivering goods. Auletta illustrates this well in presenting two cases in which the retailer aspires to become the publisher. And, down the line, perhaps, shall aim to build that tower of Babel in which AI computers shall also write the books for an adequately pounded, marinated, and conditioned so-called readership.

Yes. I’m watching from a distance. Reflexes of a lifetime—in business, in publishing, in writing—cause twitches in my body as I watch, as if I ought to do something, as if I ought to do what it takes to adapt to this new and glittering environment. But I sink back and watch as an early wasp heads out over our stoutly leafing hostas. And I feel a kind of certainty. What is its essence? It essence is that that the Kindle and the iPad shall both pass away—and it won’t even take too long a time. But the book shall remain. And, somehow, it will reach the new readers who’ll still be there after the Age of Oil has seeped into the past.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Subjunctively Speaking, Habeas Cura

Now and again that damnable phrase, habeas corpus, comes into my view. Most recently I came across, again, Dorothy Sayers’ novel, Have His Carcase, which renders that phrase into the English with a mystery-novel twist—with a twist because the Latin corpus suggests a corpse, hence carcass, though Sayers spells it in the British style, but what the Latin means is body. The Latin for corpse is cadaver.

On more than one occasion I’ve looked up the formal translation but did not, as it were, follow it into the thickets of its grammatical origins. For a person as interested in language as I am—and knowing more than one rather well—I’m abysmal in grammar. This time I went further and explored the meaning of the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of habeas. I realize now where my problems have been—and why it is that I’ve always characterized this as a damnable phrase. It comes from the fact that the subjunctive mood in English has almost disappeared—whereas it’s alive and well in German. Maybe I’ll remember this the next time.

The subjunctive mood is a form of the verb that “represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)”—thus, according to Webster’s, with emphasis added. I note here particularly the juxtaposition of “not yet” and “possible” and of “desire.” Further investigation tells me that this combination is sometimes called “mandative,” thus carrying the sense, but only the sense, of a politely expressed command. And that cluster of meanings, finally, tells me the underlying flavor of the habeas corpus. If the court really wanted to command that the accused be presented in person before the court, thus using the imperative mood, the writ would have been called habe corpus or, addressed to a plurality, habete corpus. But no. Politeness required a slightly less confrontational request: Please have the body present in court. Of this we only retain the “have body” from the Latin. And we don’t have a subjunctive form for that sort of “have” in English—or, rather, we use the same word for the indicative, the subjunctive, as well as for the imperative moods. And very often we add words to signal the subjunctive mood—words like ought, should, would, may, etc. When the same word is used, and auxiliaries are excluded, we are required either to sound out or, in written form, to “understand” an implied intonation here. In German, by contrast, the verb form habe, meaning “have” as in “I have,” thus in the indicative, does have a subjunctive version. It is habest. And when you hear that, you know that a mild command is present in the invitation.

Live and learn. And have care as you read, which the Latin would render as habeas cura—and now let me out of this camera obscura.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cinco de Mayo

That phrase has reverberated in my head long enough—year after year, decade after decade—without actually producing anything more than the sound—and the vague notion of a national holiday south of the border. Well, in a way. And in a way not. But it’s so easy, nowadays, to discover where that sound first arose, and today I decided to find out. I did and, in a way, I had to laugh. From the ridiculous we rise to the sublime. Cinco de Mayo commemorates, in a manner of speaking, an attempt to collect a debt that more or less succeeded and also, more or less, failed. The story (slightly edited) is told here by Wikipedia (of which volunteer encyclopedia, by the way, I am a card-carrying supporter):

In 1861, Benito Juárez stopped making interest payments to countries to which Mexico owed money. In response, France attacked Mexico to force payment of this debt. France decided that it would try to take over and occupy Mexico. France was successful at first in its invasion; however, on May 5, 1862, at the city of Puebla, Mexican forces were able to defeat an attack by the larger French army. In the Battle of Puebla, the Mexicans were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. Although the Mexican army was victorious over the French at Puebla, the victory only delayed the French advance on Mexico City. A year later, the French occupied Mexico. The French occupying forces placed Emperor Maximilian I on the throne of Mexico in 1864. The French, under pressure from the United States, eventually withdrew in 1866-1867. President Benito Juárez deposed and executed Maximilian five years after the Battle of Puebla.
Money, debt, imperial designs. The recurrent upsurge of liberation movements, the protection of spheres of influence, an occasion of Latin and North American cooperation mostly remembered in the United States— all this produced an unofficial holiday that seems to be observed in the Mexican state of Puebla and here. Interesting and strange. Well, now I know. But the reverberation remains untouched. A great sound that, Cinco de Mayo.

Added on Seis de Mayo:

For those who’ve read the comments to this post and would like to know more about Goliad, General Zaragoza, his family history, and the nature of the commemoration as experienced in Texas, I would suggest a visit to this fascinating site offered by the Seguin Family Historical Society.

Passing the Amazon Meme

This idea went public on May 3 when Meagan MacArdle, an editor for The Atlantic, started it and named it a meme [1]. She credits an anonymous friend as the initiator. The suggestion, in her words: “Go to your Amazon orders page, and see what the very first thing you ordered from Amazon was.” This thing touched me by way of Brandon at Siris [2]. For bookish people this sort of thing is irresistible. At Amazon, under Your Account, you’ll find Your Orders, and with a little looking you discover a year-by-year listing. Brandon found it necessary to qualify his listing because his—and mine too—began with gifts for others. The idea here is to discover the first things you bought for yourself. Here is the list of my first five purchases beginning in February 1999:

Postscript Language Tutorial and Cookbook, Adobe Systems Inc.
Postscript by Example, Henry McGilton et al
Imaginal Worlds: Ibn Al-‘Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity, William C. Chittick
The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn Al-‘Arabi’s Cosmology, William C. Chittick
Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn Arabi, Claude Addas
Yes. We do put our money where our mouth is, as it were. My very, very first one? It was a gift Brigitte asked me to find; we bought it in November 1998; it was a book by Diana Vandervoort entitled Temari: How To Make Japanese Thread Balls—and I submit that that book too fits the profile wonderfully well…

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Complexity is an interesting concept because it can be, and is, understood both in a positive and in a negative way—and sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph. And when people give it a negative flavoring, they are actually referring to the exact opposite of that which the positive connotation means. To illustrate…

People will, for instance, berate the tax code because of its complexity. What they mean is that the code is virtually impossible to comprehend rationally based on the principles on which it is supposedly built. The code, in other words, is opaque to the rational vision. But to use a description like “complex” to signal this opacity misleads. The difficulty we experience in seeing the whole may be due to complexity—or it may be due to other features of the target. In all such cases a great deal of work is required even to obtain the information we need to make a judgment.

When I use the word I almost invariable use it with a positive connotation. What I mean is that I’m in the presence of a “higher order.” A simple series (1, 2, 3) is already an order—but not yet complex. Complexity appears when simple but rationally discernible structures are meaningfully combined so that they are mutually related and supported for some purpose. That purpose may be discernibly intended; such is the case in human artifacts. The purpose may also be perceptible, but only in a philosophical manner, thus as in Aristotle’s fourth, the final, cause of things, that for which the thing exists.

In the positive sense of the word, higher order, it is the harmonious, indeed one might say the necessary, relationships and interaction of the parts that create the sensation of order and the implication of some purpose and—using a word like purpose—of intentionality. And this intentionality is, you might say, focused, concentrated. It’s not distracted, flighty, or frivolous—it is pointed. That is the reason why the complexity, the higher order, is discernible at all. I note here that the word is almost never used to refer to a big, hopeless mess. After a tornado has wreaked its havoc on a township or a tsunami on a coastline, people don’t refer to the results as complex. Chaos is the more usual phrase.

Behind the negative connotation of complexity—the expression of frustration that the word implies when people complain of complexity—lies a disordered intentionality, the conflict between two or more competing intentions, compromises that distort a rational tendency in the whole and render it opaque to view.

This, surely, is the case with the tax code. It overweening purpose is to obtain money from the governed—and it does that job just fine. Complexity arises, in the negative sense, because other intentions are present in it as well—but are poorly implemented. One of these is the intention of justice: to obtain the money fairly so that burdens fall on everyone in equal measure based on capacity or some other rule. And that intention, while it is arguably possible to apply harmoniously, competes with yet other intentions. Among these is that of powerful interests to escape the burden and of others to use the tax code for purposes of negative or positive stimulus (to cause people to quit smoking, to cause others to invest or to employ). And I’ve not even begun to list all of the competing intentions that the tax code manifests, not least mixed modes in which stimulus represents payoffs and punitive taxes are beneficial to others. And so it goes. And in these cases—where intentionality is all too present in the structure—the same internationalities are not harmoniously balanced at all. They depend on the balance of power at any one point in time; they reflect a vast layering of past balances of might left in place but partially weakened or strengthened, and so on. Complexity is present but it has become deformed. Such is the deposit of centuries of civilization. Reforming it, alas, invariably requires a new start.

The word also lives in an environment where the very concept of intentionality is in question—not in the courts of law but certainly in the courts of science and philosophy. For this reason a phenomenon like life, the very apex of genuine complexity visible to us, is difficult to understand. How can such a complex something come into being without any intentionality at all—purely by accident…

Sunday, May 2, 2010

All Understand It Very Forgiving

The other day I discovered that people from other countries sometimes ask Google to translate some of my posts into their own tongues. The most common route is from English to Spanish. Just for fun I asked Google to translate one of my pieces into German. The result produced a good half hour’s laughter and merriment for Brigitte and me. An article today about complexity in the New York Times—it caught Brigitte’s attention, we talked about it, and I’ll comment at some point in the future—reminded me of the application of mechanics to language.

Artificial Intelligence is a kind of bête noire for me—an innocent way to vent frustrations about much deeper errors of the current era. AI’s march is not exactly triumphal, and least so where genuine intelligence is absolutely necessary to make the machine perform. Therefore it delights me to present the translation of Madame de Staël’s rendition of that famous phrase, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. She said: Tout comprendre rend très indulgent. This Google renders as “All understand it very forgiving.”

The child is learning to speak! Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful child…

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Heard Myself Saying It

It’s not a major problem to persuade a majority to vote for self-indulgence.
We were driving on the highway—and I was just reacting to something we’d heard on the news. It just popped out. Thus are epigrams born. The difference between a famous one and millions of others entirely forgotten is that the person who said it has a name and it was picked up in a speech or in some bit of writing... A good modern use of the epigram, however, once we notice it, is to build it into a quick blog post, as I’ve learned from the Maverick Philosopher, as for instance here and here.