Monday, December 31, 2012

Crossing the Chain Bridge

If two out of three years makes a tradition, it is tradition on this blog to mark the passage from one year to the next with images of gates. Passage from 12 to 13, however, calls for something a little more massive, hence I bring today a landmark of my birthplace, Budapest, known as the Chain Bridge or, formally, Széchenyí Lánchíd. The bridge spans the Danube and connects high-lying Buda with low-lying Pest. The daylight view is from Buda. Parliament is on the Pest side to the north (left). The spires visible are those of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. I was born just up-river of here, on Margaret Island, between the two parts of the city (also to the left but invisible).

The perspective here is distorted by the current viewpoint (often is, come to think of it). The bridge is much wider than it looks, and the cathedral lies beyond a river-side park and then four long city-blocks inland. Another view, by night, corrects for that. Here is the same bridge ceremonially lit:

This image is taken from the Pest side, and the domed structure across the river is part of the Buda Castle.

For eastern parts of Europe, the technology always came from the West. The leadership that caused the building of this bridge came from a very famous politician and nobleman, István Széchenyí—who also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The bridge was built by a Scot, Adam Clark, after a design by the Englishman William Tierney Clark (no relation). The first square the Chain Bridge touches on the Buda side is called Adam Clark Square.

So let us cross the bridge tonight and enter a new time. Will it be from the flat, industrialized Pest to the medieval  sharply rising, old-fashioned Buda—or the other way around? Time will tell. Time sometimes reverses its course.
Picture credit: Hungarian Wikipedia (link).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tracing Dubstep

The last Sunday of the year comes just one day ahead of The End, ideal for those who wish to review the year just past—culture-wise. We’re living in such “happening” times that missing like three days of the year before writing their retrospectives, the authors are sure to miss a brand new trend likely to “re-define” pop for years. So here is hoping that nothing much happens tomorrow, as in “virality.”

Herewith a quote from the New York Times that provides the context:

For pop 2012 was a year of rewired consensus. A year in which Taylor Swift finally accepted her pop-star birthright, waved casually at country and then bravely entered dubstep. A year in which the critic-consensus R&B star was Frank Ocean, who spent most of the year spilling out feelings and then averting his eyes. A year in which Carly Rae Jepsen suffocated the mainstream and then evaporated. A year in which Psy, a B-list Korean pop star, unleashed a video (and song) that became the first to surpass one billion views on YouTube, redefining virality in pop along the way.
     Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, and Jon Caramanica, “Mad Science and Pop Hits,” New York Times, today.

Now in that, for me, totally obscure paragraph, one word was even more opaque than the others: dubstep. Having accepted her birthright, Ms. Swift entered that word. Now was that a place? In today’s culture, where lower-casing everything is de rigeur if you are young, as writing vatican or queeny liz, it might be a place, another country (after all she was leaving “country”), a state of some kind of grace, or even, possibly, a new word for her nineteenth year. I thought I’d better look it up.

Lo and behold, dubstep is dance music. It is only 12 years old, born in South London, and has an illustrious heritage. It’s sibling is grime, music that came from East London. East meets South. Dubstep is described (by the Allmusic website) as “tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals.” Alas. Pop music described in words is as weird as classical music rendered into writing. Dubstep’s precursor is 2-step garage, itself the child of UK garage (mid-1990s). Now UK garage is a sub-genre of deep house, deep house a sub-genre of house, and house finally gets us back to the United States. It was born in Chicago (early 1980s). House is ultimately traceable to disco.

One more elucidation before my confession. That “garage” in 2-step and in UK comes from a New York City discotheque by the name of Paradise Garage, once located at 84 King Street.

Now for my confession. In all of the above I have been cribbing from Wikipedia without, frankly, understanding a word I was reading—but like Katie the Beagle (whom we’re dog-sitting at present) just sniffling the snow with fantastic eagerness to make a kind of fuzzy pattern. In human terms, this is like editing a Russian manuscript using a Chinese Grammar of Russian accessible by way of an English-Chinese and a Chinese-Russian dictionary.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Two Races

Having mentioned Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist, yesterday I’ll follow it up with a quote from him:

In Wirklichkeit gibt es aber nur zwei Menschenrassen, nämlich die “Rasse” der anständigen Menschen und die “Rasse” der unanständigen Menschen. Und die “Rassentrennung” verläuft quer durch alle Nationen und innerhalb jeder einzelnen Nation quer durch alle Parteien.

In reality there are only two human races, namely the “race” of the decent people and the “race” of the indecent people. And “racial segregation” runs crosswise through all nations and within each nation crosswise through all parties.

Viktor Frankl, in a speech given on March 10, 1988, in Vienna, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi Annexation of Austria.

That “annexation” is commonly known as Der Anschluß. It took place officially on March 12, 1938. While the Nazis get “all the credit,” this movement predated the Nazis and really began immediately after the Holy Roman Empire disappeared in 1806. Thereafter advocates of a Small Germany and a Great Germany competed, the latter hoping to revive the HRE—which itself had been an attempt to revive the SPQR, the Roman Empire….

Friday, December 28, 2012

Where Statistics are Conspicuous by Absence

It might be very interesting, as a way of assessing cultural trends, if we could get good statistics for a handful of countries—or even just for the United States—on the number of practitioners of psychotherapy by major schools and, of course, over time: say 1900, 1950, and 2000. No such thing. I’ve tried. I’ve arrived here because two such schools came to mind in the last couple of months. One is hypnotherapy, pioneered by the American Milton H. Erikson (1901-1980) and the other logotherapy, the work of the Austrian Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). For me they stand way, way above the rest, but there is a strange commonality between them that I thought I would explore—and report on, most likely on Borderzone—in 2013.

Michelle is now taking a course, sponsored by her hospital, on hypnotherapy. It tickled me pink when I discovered that the course is centered on Milton Erikson’s methods. And as for logotherapy, I’ve known about it since my young adulthood, back when I was marching through the schools: Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Eriksonian (no relation to Milton H. above), Horneyan, and then, finally Frankl’s. Frankl’s logotherapy is centered on meaning, and having arrived there, I had arrived—at a genuine theory. I didn’t bother much with the explosive growth of all kinds of therapies thereafter except to read a couple of books by B.F. Skinner the behaviorist.

Here I would note that while we avidly collect statistics on everything to do with money and people (the Economic and Population censuses), culture gets short shrift. I’ve long felt that statistics are a lens into the realm of vast numbers. Concerning psychotherapy, I found two numbers on Wikipedia. One lists the number of schools in 1980 (250) and the number in 1996 (450). The references cited are minimal and essentially impossible to trace. And even finding a coherent listing of such schools, they are quite varied, don’t agree, and list the names of broad categories, not actual schools. Fuzz, fog. Absent  the sharp resolution that statistics offer.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


A famous and successful American optimist, Ronal Reagan, put his finger closer to the problem when he suggested there was little limit to what people could accomplish if government would get out of the way.
    [From Daniel Henninger’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal]

The doctor must have hit Mr. Henninger just below the knee with a little hammer because those words, above, are a kind of reflex. The reflex might be called the American Reflex; it produces contradictory statements by members of government. That famous and successful optimist, after all, was a President of the United States, a Governor of California, a labor union leader, and a secret informer employed by the FBI to pinpoint communist sympathizers. Three of these activities of his could be described as “government”; he certainly didn’t “get out of the way.” People who suffer from the American Reflex hunger and thirst for political power when they are out of office, and when in the office pretend to do away with the jobs that they are holding.

Days ago we were once more throwing up our hands over some other, earlier instance of the American Reflex. “Odd, when you think of it,” I said. “America is the only country where this virulent hatred of any kind of collective activity, especially government, is taken for granted.” “Individualism,” Brigitte said.

Got to thinking about that. Individuality is a defining characteristic of humans. Humans only? No. It’s a feature of all living entities. Are the Japanese, Indians, Germans, Tibetans any less individual that we are? Isn’t it peculiar to single out this universal trait, common to all people all over the world as a distinguishing trait, a marker of American Exceptionalism? We all breathe. Then came the title of this post. Wouldn’t it be amusing if we worshipped breathing, instead of individuality? Then inhalationism would not have the ridiculous sound that it has.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Rest of the Story

Over most of Europe today is the Second Day of Christmas; in England it’s called Boxing Day (not related to fisticuffs but to boxed gifts). Hereabouts we begin the brief walk to the end of the year. It is the rest of the story of 2012—but not in Paul Harvey’s sense. In that stout radio journalist's broadcasts that phrase always promised a surprise. Christmas crowns, indeed completes, the year. Not surprising, therefore, that the Mayan civil calendar began at the winter solstice, a right apt date for endings and beginnings: the shortest day. Since the solstice we’ve gained a whole minute in daylight here in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But our calendar does not end for a few more days yet. And a hiatus is welcome, a time for taking a deep breath, for taking stock. Not for us the revels of New Years eve—although we’ll hear it out there as firecrackers will go off. In the world of the hyper, hysteria—over the cliff and the miserable retail sales numbers of this season, said to be, in today’s papers, the worst since 2008. The malls will still be busy. But hereabouts the humdrum begins to rule again. Where did I put the salt last spring? Was it in the garage? In the basement? Wherever I didn’t put it—that’s where I’ll be looking first. And now you know the rest of the story.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Silent Night

Brigitte and I wish all visitors and readers of Ghulf Genes a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, ¡Feliz Navidad! Frohe Weihnachten, メリークリスマス, Wesołych Świąt, Glædelig jul, С Рождеством, 圣诞节快乐, and a Boldog Karácsony! We include you, too, Delrine, but cannot find the Sinhalese...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Weissenfels: One of Our Cradles

And der Saale hellem Strande
Along the Saale’s bright-lit banks
Stehen Burgen stolz und kühn,
Stand castles proud and brave,
Ihre Dächer sind zerfallen,
Their roofs have shattered in their falls,
Und der Wind streicht durch die Hallen,
The wind sweeps down their empty halls,
Wolken ziehen d’rüber hin.
The clouds above pass slow and grave.

Weissenfels is a large town (nearly 41,000) in southern Sachsen-Anhalt, a north-eastern state of Germany. It is about 20 miles south-west of Leipzig as the crow flies. It is on the Saale river and, to distinguish it from other  instances of Weissenfels in Germany, it is known as Weissenfels an der Saale. Until Germany’s reunification around 1990, it was in East Germany. Functionally the town has always been and still is an agricultural service center with light industry, but is better known as a cultural center where many famous 18th century musicians gathered or performed for the princes of Sachsen-Weissenfels. The famous poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis) lived there. Friedrich Händel’s talents were discovered there. Many of the streets today are named after poets, musicians, and famous scientists. The town looks back to 1185 when some lord built a great castle topping the “white cliff” that gave the city its name. The Saale parts the town into a northern and a southern half. And this place also plays major role in Ghulf history. It was the gathering point for Brigitte’s family as World War II disrupted her family’s life in Lodz, in Poland and scattered its members. And here was born our eldest child, Barbara, close in time to this posting, on December 30, 1949.

The naming symbolism of life is wondrously curious. Barbara, the child of Brigitte’s first marriage, was born a Vogel; in German the word means “bird.” But Babs, as we call her, later married a man named Hohenstein. He is an American, to be sure, but the word in German is “High Stone”—so that she, a high flyer always, now bears a name that echoes the place of her birth. One of those proud castles along the Saale’s banks is shown in the winter shot of the town above. It is known simply as Schloss Weissenfels.

The war had scattered Brigitte’s family. Her father, Heinrich, had been impressed into the military and was at the Russian front, Brigitte herself had been sent off to Germany with her school to escape bombing—and she lost contact with her family in the vast confusion that soon developed. Elivra, Brigitte’s mother, set out for Germany with her youngest, Edda, still a baby. She was the first to arrive in Weissenfels where she had a friend, the mother of a son who would have married Brigitte’s cousin had he not been killed. Much later, Heinrich managed to join Elvira there—and thanks to his efforts and the invaluable help of the Red Cross, a very lofty institution in our hearts—Brigitte was found and also arrived. Last came Heinrich’s own father, Karl, a very old man, and Heinrich’s sister, Hela.

That’s the story, in barest outline. Those in the thinning ranks who still remember “real life,” as it was lived during World War II, will have no problem enriching this tale with sordid and shivery detail. But in the end, love conquers all.
The wonderful panoramic shot of Weissenfels comes from the town's own website (link). The church shown is St-Marien, the evangelical city church (Stadtkirche). The view is from the Saale to the west.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Of Pens and Nibs and Ribs

The pen’s an object writers must possess!
A means, of course, it doesn’t spell success.
And of the pen itself the most important part,
The thing that gives it spirit, soul, and heart,
Is that metallic tip of it, its nib.
It is, let’s say, the writer’s thirteenth rib—
To make a nod, with tongue in cheek, to God
Who, if the text is right, instead of flawed,
Used Adam’s rib to write the script for Eve.
Or perhaps that rib meant to deceive.
The Hebrew might be read another way:
God might have nudged Adam a bit astray:
“From your own rib is where the woman sprang;
She’s merely yin and You are proudly yang,
(But as for Eve, she was right up My sleeve,
A wonder a mere man cannot conceive.)”
Now as for nibs, to get back to my subject,
The finest nib’s the worthiest of object,
And the writer lucky who gets as a gift
Two fine-nibbed pens to labor on his shrift.

Raising the Periscope

When first we moved to the Detroit region and were still just contemplating buying a house in Grosse Pointe, an astute, wise lady and high-ranking editorial figure at Gale Research (the reference Publisher) made a face and sort of stuck out her head, a gesture indicating, Are you sure you want to do that? And then she said, “Nice, yes. But there isn’t any shopping around there. You’ll find yourself forever traveling west.” Yes. That turned out to be true.

If Time has memories, Detroit, the city, and its most prestigious flanking suburb—but originally the first place where the French founders of this metropolis first built their dwellings—are regions that Time has forgotten. This isn’t where the action is. Hereabouts we still live in what seem to be the 1950s. Decorum still has its place. The schools perform. The other day we contemplated the projected plans of the City of Grosse Pointe Farms to “beautify” the town with literally more than  a dozen projects. Our Pier Park, with a grand view of Lake Saint Clair—dark blue waters,  bright sunlight, and white sails majestically beating their passage—Pier Park, already lovely and richly equipped, is getting yet other additions. Another consequence of our location here is that the mass and roar of Modernity is virtually unheard.

Yesterday the quest for an unusual object, to be precise a white-trimmed black Speedo one-piece bathing suit, caused us to raise our periscope. The change in image is appropriate in light of the product. I’d polled Sports Authority by telephone and discovered that the product we were seeking was only available in Auburn Hills, 45 miles and in that traffic an hour away. In that experience, both going and arriving, we did discover where the action around here is. It is way to the West and North. Vast masses of people, ocean-sized parking lots, creeping traffic. Reminded us of other trips. One took us from Detroit to Seattle in the 1990s, another from the United States to East Germany in the 1960s. One globe. But, to change the image again, different times. The globe’s face is dappled. Dark place and still—bright places and noisy. And those who live in each of these places think it’s the same all over. But it isn’t.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of a Mayan Age

The Mayans believed in “world eons” each lasting, using the Gregorian calendar, 5125 years. The Mayans had three calendars. The civil calendar (the Haab’) had 365 days, the religious 260, and the Long Count Calendar 144,000 days. A “world” or eon was 13 of these long count years, called b’ak’tuns.  The length of each such age, therefore, is 1,872,000 days.

The beginning of the last world—the fourth such in the Long Count Calendar—was on August 11, 3114 BC. Adding 1.872 million days to that brings us to today, December 21, 2012. Now is it just a coincidence—or did the Mayans know that the end of this age would end on the day of the Winter Solstice? I think that they did.

As pointed out in the last post on this series (link), they well knew exactly how long the actual tropical (also called solar) year was (365.2422 days). Their own civil calendar, according to the scholar, Victoria Bricker (“The Origin of the Maya Solar Calendar,” in Current Anthropology,  February 1982) had its beginnings on the winter solstice around 550 BC. The Mayans therefore clearly associated that date with the completion of a period. My guess is that they calculated their long calendar looking both backward and forward—and picked the starting day of this Fourth Age so that it would coincide with today’s solar event at its end.

To bring this counting down to earth, lets trace it. Between 3114 BC and 2012 AD, we have the passage of 5,126 years. But the first year was partial, starting on August 11; so was the last year, ending on December 21, today. Now August 11, 3114 (not a leap year) was day 223; therefore we count only 143 days of that year. This leap year’s December 21 is day number 356. So let’s do the additions using years of 365.2422 days as the multiplier for full years:

5,124 full years
Days in the first year to be counted
Days in the last year to be counted
  Total Days

The exact time of the Winter Solstice took place in the northern hemisphere at 11:12 Greenwich Mean Time, which was 6:12 am here in Detroit; the scare-mongers prefer 11:11—perhaps because it looks more ominous. If you are reading this, it means that the world, as a physical phenomenon, hasn’t ended. Nor did the Mayans ever suggest that it would. It’s just another fancy calendar running out—so that a new one must be purchased.

So what happens now to folks who have been earning advertising dollars by publicizing Doomsday? Well, there is still hope for them. The Mayan Long Count Calendar is truly long. The next important date comes when instead of 13 b’ak’tuns 20 will have passed. At that point we reach a Piktun. And that day will come October 12, 4772. That would seem to leave a fair amount of time yet to come up with the new websites proclaiming that calamity.

But, not to err in my own projections, one of these eons one of the catastrophists, surely, will turn out to be right! Not this time. And in the meantime, the Mayans have had their season in the spotlight. And their astronomy serves us as a reminder not ever to discount the cleverness of vanished cultures.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Swarm of Bases

Looking at Mayan ways of herding numbers, where base-20 numeration (the vigesimal) is dominant, with one exception, I was reminded that ancient cultures, going far back into the BC regions, also liked working with numbers other than the decimal. The Mayans used positional notation for their numbers but, unlike us, who move from right to left as numbers increase, they moved from top to bottom. At each position they showed multiples of 20 except in the third place. There they used an 18-base structure (octodemical). Their numeration came from the construction of calendars. The first position (topmost) included units, the second weeks (20 days), and the third years. If they had been consistently vigesimal, they would have derived a year by multiplying 1 week of 20 days by 20. That would have yielded a 400-day year—a little too long for comfort. Therefore they used 18-base numeration in that position to get a year of 360 days. Thereafter, each successive period was 20 times the earlier. The Mayans also had a symbol for zero; it had the shape of an eye.

During Babylonian times (around 1800-1600 BC), base-60 numeration (sexagesimal) was common—whereas the Egyptians used the decimal system. Use of the sexagesimal seems to have been motivated by the problem of fractions, known to plague all elementary grade children in decimal eras. Sixty is evenly divisible into halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, tenths, twelfths, fifteenths, twentieths, and thirtieths fractions, whereas 10 is divisible cleanly only into halves and fifths.

Now, of course, we also use a sexagesimal system daily—if not hourly—without having our eyes glaze up: the sixty seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour, the 360 degrees of the circle, which is 6 x 60. And as we know instinctively that 15 minutes are a quarter hour, so we also know that 90° are a quarter of a circle. Our longer measurements of time are also derivable from 60—as in hour, and day—but when it comes to a year, Mother Nature shakes off our precision and insists on pesky fractions.

The Babylonians, unlike the Mayans, applied their numbers to geometry and mathematics, not to calendars. They stuck to a lunar calendar which is something of a nightmare to describe.

Modern people all over the world also daily use other bases without ever thinking about them. Two that are hidden—but the nerds know—are base-2 (binary), the core language of computers, and built on top of it the base-16 (hexadecimal), of which a half is the 8-bit byte. Some folks, stuck with very old computers, may also be served by 12-base (duodecimal) numbers.

The duodecimal is under our linear measurements (12 inches to the foot); hexadecimal hides in weights (a dram is 1/16 of an ounce, an ounce 1/16 of a pound), and in volumes (an ounce is 1/16 of a pint, the quart and gallon are multiples of pints). And so on. Note that bases other than 10 all have more clean fraction than the decimal. Sexagesimal wins, with ten such. The 12-, 18-, and 20-base have four, the 16-base has three.

So what is the point of all this? The point is that, before modern calculators, there was motivation (to use a word the nerds are fond of) for using all kinds of bases for ease of calculation—and habit has preserved those practices in ordinary life. And the final point is to praise the decimal point—which has freed us of calculating awkward fractions in the old way in an age that is becoming ever more fractionalized.
My source here is A History of Mathematics by Carl B. Boyer, revised by Uta C. Merzbach, John Wiley & Sons, on the Babylonians p. 25, on the Mayans p. 213.

Emergence of a New Plea

One might think of it as the NRA Insanity Plea. Almost out of the box, someone suggested that the teachers in that unfortunate Newtown elementary “have blood on their hands.” They didn’t have a gun handy to defeat the attacker—blasting him to kingdom come from behind the desk where the apple sits. Okay. That was just a reflex. But as the second, third day dragged on, the new plea began emerging—with a weak and a strong thrust. The weak thrust is that we must now ban assault weapons—as if a person with a loaded six-shooter couldn’t, with some care, kill five people before terminating himself with prejudice. The strong thrust is that, looking for culprits, we must immediately point fingers at the Mental Health Community for its failure to identify the nuts among us.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Religious Affiliation

Religious affiliation of large masses of people is damnably difficult to establish with what might be called scientific precision. The reason for this is that the most cost effective method is by telephone survey. A really good census would be prohibitively costly. One way to do that would be to select four Sundays a year, one in each season, by randomized methods. Then, with observers stationed at every church in America, actual headcounts would be undertaken. The usual survey method is quite missy, one might say, because those conducting the surveys rely on the self-identification of the respondents. Thus, in addition to some 41 named religious or non-religious categories, the results include choices like “Christian,” not further specified,  “Protestant,” no denomination listed, and also “Nondenominational.” People could also vote for “No Religion” either by subcategory or by that label. The subcategories respondents supplied were Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist. Here I am showing results obtained by the most respected survey of this kind in the United States, the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS); it is run by the Graduate School of the University of New York.

I got to thinking about this while reading an article by evangelical pastor John S. Dickerson (“The Decline of Evangelical America”) in the New York Times this morning.  I got to wondering if ARIS had updated its earlier results, which had been for 2001. It turned out that it had. Data for 2008 are now available and were published in the 2012 Statistical Abstract (link, see Table 75). It now turns out that Pastor Dickerson may be wrong—or that he is reflecting a decline in quality rather than quantity. Those who self-describe themselves as Evangelical and/or Born Again more than doubled between 1990 and 2001 and nearly tripled in number between 1990 an d 2008.

Now when we next look at those who just say that they are Christian, they doubled in the 1990-2008 period (108.5% increase). Those who identified themselves as Protestants, however, declined by 70 percent. But those who called themselves Nondenominational increased by a whopping 4,040 percent. What to make of this? Are we dealing here with a drift in self-identification? So that once church-going people have been re-purposing Sunday and hence are kinda forgetting where they belong? Or does that huge Nondenominational increase mean drawing closer to religion?

The most potent increase in numbers is shown by Catholics (up in this period by 11.2 million, 24.33% in 1990-2008) and Baptists (up by 2.2 million, 6.4%). As for the single largest percentage increase, 4,175 percent, that belongs to Wicca. In 1990 there were 8,000 of them, in 2008 342,000. They know the name of their denomination. In this period, all Christian denominations increased their adherents by 14.7 percent (to 173.4 million), other religions by 50.28 percent (to 8.8 million), and the nonreligious by 138.4 percent (34.2 million). I last wrote about this subject in February 2010 (link). Back then I noted a drift toward unbelief. That still seems to be going on.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Brutal Corrective

An alternative title might be Cosmic Corrective—but that might be misunderstood as an Act of God, our most exalted and injurious conceptualization for the random. I’ve dealt with mass killings before both here and on LaMarotte, on LaMarotte again this morning (link), showing counts over the span of a century; they paint a trend.

For a student of the life of cultures and the death of civilizations, events like the Newtown, Connecticut massacre have the character of markers. I’ve written extensively here about collectives; culture is their youth and adulthood, civilization their aging and decline. I noted with interest that media coverage of the event was immediate and extensive—and that the presence of international media was prominent enough to be remarked upon and reported. The problem is now global.

The brutally corrective character of such events is that they remind us of something we’ve come to neglect: our impotence and helplessness—especially over against the collective, in the face of actions that arise from the fracturing of culture. Media coverage today and for quite a long time to come—until it fades only to erupt again when the next mayhem strikes—will be about why and how it could have happened, also, marginally, about “what to do.” Many things immediately come to mind, of course. Will laws be enacted? The safe bet is, No. But the sheer and increasingly densifying recurrence of such events will act as a corrective for many, many people—and as these numbers rise, the culture, sure enough will undergo a change. When chaos spreads and strikes the individual out of the blue like a random lightning bolt, we lose faith in our collective perfection and begin to look for a new orientation—in the vertical direction. Will mass killings eventually diminish? The cultural time-scale is very long—but yes; killings of this kind probably will as a new culture takes hold of us. In the best of cultural times, however, mass killing are still present and still practiced—but only at the most refractory and stupid level of humanity, by the tips of our collectives, by our kings and by our states.  

Concerning that Act of God, above, it is, unfortunately of very long standing. There is that phrase by the German poet Friedrich von Logau (1640):

Gottes Mühlen mahlen langsam, mahlen aber trefflich klein.
Ob aus Langmut Er sich säumet, bringt mit Schärf’ Er alles ein.

Longfellow translated von Logau’s Sinngedichte in part. His rendition:

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

Longfellow lived in the nineteenth century. And folk sayings echo this. How many thought, in Newtown and elsewhere yesterday: “There but for the grace of God…” But our brutal corrective suggests that we best leave God out of it. His grace was as much there for those killed, and their relatives, as for those who escaped physical termination—which, ultimately, awaits us all.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Capitalism: The Real Thing and the Label

My own view on capitalism owes much to the work of Fernand Braudel, the French economic historian, and to his three-volume work, Civilization and Capitalism, particularly the second volume, titled The Wheels of Commerce. The rest is observation of the here and now.

Braudel’s presentation is overwhelmingly persuasive. Capitalism, as he sees it, is a distinct form of economic activity characterized by monopoly (whether clearly visible or not); alliances with political power to maintain control; detached from community, society, and peoples; and focused entirely on getting high returns on money. Therefore capital enters markets capable of being controlled, low in risk, high in returns—and then leaves such markets abruptly when conditions change. Braudel’s emphasis on monopoly, as a defining trait of the capitalist stance, means that capitalism is not entrepreneurial, does not believe in competition, and never mind free markets or the deification of The Market. Capitalists are never specialists.

The broader, more perennial, “always there,” unavoidable economic activity—of which, these days, “small business” is the supposed flag-bearer—is organically linked to community, society, and peoples. It is a necessity. Capital only deals with selected high-yield opportunities—and only while they last.

This form of detached, indifferent monopolistic exploitation of economic exchange, wherever it will work, became visible early in European economic history (Braudel’s subject) with money lending (“usury”) in the twelfth century. The mediaeval economy did not offer much in the way of opportunities; it was too organically structured, based on the interaction of “estates.” The opportunities arose when the first relatively small urban centers began appearing and therefore trade became more intense. Then capital becomes more visible in the form of the great merchants who traded in certain selected goods that fit their needs. Thus after money lending, call it banking, it appears in merchandising and distribution—but, pointedly, not in transportation. Why not? Transportation, as such, was not profitable and highly risky, especially transportation by water. It required high capital investments that had a short life and could be easily and unpredictably lost in a storm.

Capital briefly entered mining late in the fifteenth century—its first foray into actual production of anything at all. Capital left mining after about a 50-year participation. It wasn’t profitable enough. Sure enough, states took over the mines—because mining had become vital to the economies. Next capital selectively entered agriculture ranging from actual ownership of land and management of estates—but this only in a relatively small number of cases. Involvement with agriculture principally took the form of organizing acquisition and then sale and distribution of particularly profitable crops.

Eventually, as the industrial revolution dawned and as technology improved—not least the durability of what have since come to be known as “capital goods,” such as machines, capital entered the production sector as well and has, since, become almost synonymous with it. Its ways of thought have completely saturated, permeated economic thought and behavior—so much so that, these days, it appears to be a “truth from above” that corporations serve their stockholders—rather than the public. That management need not know the product deeply to manage enterprises; lower levels can handle that. That any legal way to save on taxes, thus to avoid contributing to the collective, is a virtue. Note, in this connection, my point above about “alliances with political power” that help the capitalist shape the laws. Therefore comes news today that Google has avoided paying $2 billion in taxes by moving $9.8 billion into a Bermuda shell company. Questioned about this, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, said: “I am very proud of the structure that we set up. We did it based on the incentives that the governments offered us to operate.  It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” What we see here is “capitalism” as a label—a label of virtue. But its real meaning is detachment from community, society, and peoples. There is now another layer of people, above the ordinary masses. In that layer different rules apply.

Meanwhile—and Braudel largely concentrated on capitalism in the pre-industrial period—we may now be approaching another change. It may be that, as capital abandoned mining, so now it may be finding physical production less than suitable as a place to put its masses of money. There are clear signs of capital’s withdrawal in various places. Capital is still investing in virtual reality—along with using other people’s money to gamble on derivates—themselves quite virtual. And then, when oil runs out and once more capital goods became less durable, and people have less and less money to engage in consumption, we’ll all sink back into the good old Dark Ages. At last only usury will remain as an opportunity. And here’s hope that some strong church will erase that infamy too. For a while. For a while.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Did You Have a Vague Year?

The question can, but need not be, understood in an ironical fashion.  That word, vague, has a properly technical meaning applied to the year. Vague comes from the Latin, vagus, meaning “wandering,” “rambling,” and hence also “less than well defined.” Annus vagus is a wandering year. So what does that phrase mean?

It means a year of 365 days—unadjusted with leap days. When the formal calendar is structured like that, the simplest way to make it orderly is by assuming 12 months of 30 days and then five more days added. The ancient Egyptian calendar was structured like that. The Mayans had three different calendars: The Long Count (for which we have no name), the religious (called Tzol’kin), and the ordinary civil calendar (called Haab’), which was an annus vagus but made up of 18 months of 20 days to which were added five more (those five considered unlucky).

So what happens when one lives one’s life in a succession of vague years? Well, the actual year is then shorter than it really is, as marked by the sun, by 0.2442 days. That translates to 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. Therefore a festival, recurring on a fixed date of the vague calendar, begins nearly six hours earlier every year. If we put such a year in place today, Christmas would occur on November 25 in 2136. And so on. This shift in festivals—when the calendar isn’t accurate—caused humanity to introduce leap days or other adjustments.

The Mayan’s what with having three different calendars, of which the Long Count was very precise for long periods, adjusted to the seasonal shift not by introducing extra days but simply moving the date of the calendar. In the example above, Christmas would be nudged forward in time one day every fourth year to account for the drift—reminiscent of our leap year additions.

But what with this constant drift of the vague calendar backward in time (so that last year’s fixed date is earlier in the new vague year), eventually the calendar, having thus wandered off its moorings, would return to its beginning again. What goes around, comes around. And, of course, it does. So how long does that period take? It takes 1,508 vague years—and presto, Christmas is once more on December 25.

But did the Mayans know that? Did they have a real sense for the duration of the accurate, the tropical year? Evidently they did. At the Palenque archeological site near Chiapas, in Mexico, archeologists noted some inscriptions at an ancient temple, the Temple of the Cross, dates that were 1,508 years of their years apart. John Temple and Eric S. Thompson interpreted those dates as knowledge of the solar year (link). 1,508 times 365 is 550,420 days. And so is 1,507 times 365.2422, the length of the tropical year.

I bring this vital information as part of my series on the End of the World, projected by catastrophists to come on December 21 of this year. Other posts in this series are here and here. Now for the answer to that question. No, you did not have a vague year in 2012, not astronomically speaking. We hew close to the tropical these days. As for how 2012 felt, well that’s another matter.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Morning Red, Evening Dead!

It was but a little after 5 pm, but as we left the swimming exercise the sky was dark but for a far, faint band of fading yellow. A memory came into Brigitte’s mind from far away and long ago. “Morgen rot,” she said. “There is that German saying. But how does it go on?” I knew it too, but neither of us could produce the answer.

I awoke with it this morning—which tells us something about the mysteries of memory, the hard-working, obedient brain cells laboring away, all through the night. “Morgen rot, Abend tot.” Post breakfast I went to discover what I could about it. Turns out that it’s very well known in German and appears on multiple websites that deal with proverbs and folk sayings. One of these is well made; it presents sources and predecessors. Now the origin for this saying, according to this site (link), is Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The Latin is Quem dies veniens videt superbum, hunc dies videt fugiens jacentem. A literal translation is available in The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati’s Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs, and Sayings. To wit: “The man whom the new day sees in his pride is by its close seen prostrate.” A translation that at least touches on the German saying is in Marlowe’s Edward II: “He whom the dawning day has seen exalted in his pride, the departing day has seen downfallen.” Here at least the word “dawn” appears. In German Morgenrot means dawn. All right. Seneca had the general idea, but it was the German folks speech that shortened it. Or was it?

I next encountered a fairly well known nineteenth century poem by the German poet Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827). I reproduce it below with my own translation. Hauff only lived to be twenty-five—and may have had a premonition of his own life’s brief duration. He died of fever, however, not in battle. In his version, the linkage is much more clear—and it is possibly from this poem that the German saying got its legs:

Reiters Morgenlied
The Rider’s Morning Song

Morgenrot, Morgenrot,
Red of dawn, of dawn the red,
Leuchtest mir zum frühen Tod?
Your light foretells my early death?
   Bald wird die Trompete blasen,
  Soon the trumpet will be blown,
   Dann muß ich mein Leben lassen,
  Then my life, it will have flown,
   Ich und mancher Kamerad!
  Mine and other comrades’ too!

Kaum gedacht, kaum gedacht,
Barely thought, barely thought,
Wird der Lust ein End gemacht!
Yet all the fun will soon be naught!
   Gestern noch auf stolzen Rossen,
  Day hence on proud horse, fancy-dressed,
   Heute durch die Brust geschossen,
  Today a bullet through my chest,
   Morgen in das kühle Grab!
  Another day—cool grave must do!

Ach wie bald, ach wie bald,
Oh how soon, oh how soon,
Schwindet Schönheit und Gestalt!
Pass true form, our beauty’s bloom.
   Strahlst du gleich mit deinen Wangen,
  If your cheeks are all aglow,
   Die wie Milch und Purpur prangen,
  Rosy now, and white as snow,
   Ach, die Rosen welken all!
  Alas, the roses all wilt too. 

Darum still, darum still
Therefore still, therefore I,
Füg ich mich, wie Gott es will.
God’s rules mind proclaimed on high.
   Nun, so will ich wacker streiten,
  So now therefore I’ll staunchly fight,
   Und sollt ich den Tod erleiden,
  And if death comes and takes my light,
   Stirbt ein braver Reitersmann!
  Then a brave rider passes here—adieu!

In a way it surprises me that the saying did not get picked up in English. At least a Google search did not produce it. It works with equal force, rhymes the same way. Could two world wars have something to do with that neglect? If so, too bad.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


A new report by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) issued this month. It is titled Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. It deals, in neutral language, with quite horrendous potential changes in the relatively near future, i.e., beginning a decade out (ht Brigitte). Two reports by the International Monetary Fund, publicized by the Christian Science Monitor, predict the quite dramatic global consequences of Peak Oil, not least, under some (to me almost obvious) scenarios, the outright collapse of economies. That story surfaced in November (ht Monique); one of the IMF papers issued in May, the other in October of this year. Links come at the end. Peak Oil refers to the moment when oil production begins to decline. I spoke of the “elephant in the room” on LaMarotte the other day, saying that nobody seems to see it as the cocktail party blabbers on. Well, obviously some people are seeing it.

The NIC is a research element of the United States Intelligence Community and reports to the Director of National Intelligence. The IMF is an organization of 188 countries concerned with promoting global monetary and financial stability. The NIC report, as might be anticipated, attempts to stress the positives; before it reaches the coming disasters, it predicts a vast rise in wealth and self-determination for the world’s surging middle classes. Well, here “locally,” the inverse seems to be happening, but never mind; there’s China. The IMF reports are in model-makers’ Mandarin; no shortage of equations. It takes very careful reading to decipher the meaning, which is that the disappearance of oil, the failure of alternatives to meet demand, the rapid exhaustion of coal, and hitting Peak Nuke if nuclear energy production exhausts uranium reserves, will produce fantastic increases in oil prices quite early—so much so that the Mandarins’ models of economies collapse—because, presumably, the economies they model do.

Food for quiet thought under the brightly burning lamp.

Now, having at least located and skimmed some of these reports last night and this morning, I thought I’d surface to check out the New York Times. In it one important story caught my eye. It concerns a Federal Trade Commission report titled “Many Apps for Children Fall Short on Disclosure.” Apparently these apps quietly collect “sensitive” information from children to be used for some purpose. That purpose is probably to “personalize” advertising targeting. (What’s happening to this language!) Well, anyway. Our first priority should certainly be protecting our privacy. Down the list a ways comes global economic,  political, energy, water, food, and population melt down. Someday, and evidently soon, the NCI and IMF studies project plenty of privacy for the few who will actually survive the Armageddon approaching us in slow motion now.
NCI report: link. IMF reports: link; further links to the reports are at the top of the news story.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Numerical Precision? Mother Nature Laughs!

Everything is number? Pythagoras supposedly said so although scholarly consensus disagrees. The best proof that Nature is sovereignly indifferent to number is discernible from the enormous difficulties humanity has had with keeping its calendars straight. Leap days, leap years, leap centuries (but only those divisible by 400) have disfigured our tools, and still do, and, in the early Julian calendar, we even had an intercalary month. That word itself is a mongrel, coming from inter (between) and calare (to proclaim or to call out). Things that don’t come around regularly need to be—called out.

Devilishly indifferent nature! The lunar year is 354.37 days—not 354, mind you, an even number, but fractional. The lunar phase is also a tricky 29.53 days (the period between two full moons) but is, observed against the fixed stars (the sidereal lunar month), 27.32 days. Not a whole number in sight. The 365.25 day year holds 12.369 lunar cycles.

But that length of year above is also just a sorry approximation. The solar year (called tropical year) is actually 365.2422 days; the sidereal year†, thus the year measured against the fixed stars, is 365.2564 days (both numbers rounded).  Nothing divides properly into anything. One has to keep adjusting, leaping, intercalating, and so on.

All this because I noticed—purely by happenstance—that the Julian year, in vogue from 45 BC through 1582, when the Gregorian calendar “corrected” it, would today be 13 days out of date with the observable dates of the equinoxes—of which the next comes this December 21. Back in the days of Pope Gregory XIII (that number again), the calendar was out of whack by 10 days. Three more have been added since. Now that number, 13, is a prime, therefore indivisible by anything cleanly, except 1, which makes it devilishly natural.

Is the Gregorian calendar perfect—at least in marking the equinoxes? No. It has a built in error of 1 day every 7,700 years. This suggests that the Gregorian will probably be revised and abandoned not later than the year 78 582 AD, by which time it will also be 10 days out of whack and need revision. So, approaching 2013, I am relaxed. Plenty of time yet before times comes to revise a calendar by dropping ten days to make the vernal equinox come out around about March 20, 21. This year, in the Julian, it would have fallen on March 7.
†For more on tropical/solar and sidereal times, see this post.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger (link), Wales an entrepreneur, Sanger a former philosophy professor who has concentrated on epistemology, a branch of philosophy recently celebrated on this blog. Sanger, however, was only involved in the beginnings and left the project in 2002. Wales, therefore, rightly I think, claims the title of being the founder. So what is Wikipedia?

It is a straightforward, organized body of knowledge on the Internet—without an ad in sight. It is available in 285 language editions—of which the English, German, French, and Dutch editions have more than 1 million articles. Six others (Italian, Polish, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and Portuguese) have more than 700,000 articles. It pleased me to note a year ago September that the Hungarian Wikipedia had 200,000 articles at its launch. The quality of articles is checked and, if missy, revised and, until that happens, annotated to show when statements are dubious. If known. This is a volunteer work.  Behind it, gluing it together is the non-profit Wikipedia Foundation. Wikipedia is now fundraising, an activity that takes place once a year. Has this institution had problems? Yes. Has it been derided? Yes. But it is entirely a labor of love. It pleases me yearly to contribute to it financially.

Now, to be sure, Wikipedia has not yet achieved scholarly recognition—and given its massively complex contributor base, including many scholars doing free work for the public—it may never do so. But who knows. Wikipedia will just turn twelve in 2013. Nevertheless it is becoming a quite reliable source for the knowledgeable: the more you know the more the Internet can help you. Wikipedia is certainly an excellent orienting gateway to any subject. Contributing to such a cause may lift its quality eventually. We don’t expect 12-year-olds to be the finished product. And the price is right.

Friday, December 7, 2012


The subject is Egypt and the occasion was hearing someone in the Media refer to the “polarization” of the population in Egypt. I turned to Brigitte and said: “What polarization? The pea and the pumpkin?” But then I resolved to make the image a little more realistic. Well, the population is 94.7 percent Muslim in Egypt. Some of those people, to be sure, are probably inclined toward secular belief and behavior, i.e. are only nominally Muslim. A better figure is provided by the parliamentary elections. These produced representation which was 30 percent secular and 70 percent Islamist. Not quite the pumpkin and the pea, but still rather disproportional. Presumably the active part of the 30 percent easily fits into Tahrir square.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Average Rationality

If we take a large number of actions and classify them as arbitrary and as rational, and let us say that the rational exceed 50 percent, then we might say that the society in which these actions take place is, on average, rational. Supposing that one-person, one vote is a rational arrangement. Then presumably the members of the Senate are rationally elected—assuming that voter fraud is minor and largely the same percentile in each party. But let us now take the case of cloture in the U.S. Senate. It requires 60 votes to invoke it. All legislation falling below that number fails, even if the majority are for it. Here is a case where rationality is compromised—and looking at the Senate, we can say that, on average, it is rational—but not really.

In today’s senate the Democrats have 51 seats, the Republicans 47. Two independents caucus with the democrats, producing a majority of 53—well short of the required 60 votes for cloture. This then means that every democrat who voted for a senator only counted as 85 percent of a voter (thus 51 / 60). And if we add those who voted for left-leaning independents, Okay, they all counted as 88 percent. That’s a real consolation, isn’t it?

Now the rationale for supermajorities is what, exactly? That in important cases, thus beyond routine, the majority may be deprived of its vote because the case is important? But importance is not something one can measure rationally. It will vary with individuals and is just a feeling. Therefore, at least in one institution of our society, we embrace average rationality. Must we stop there. Nah. Plenty of other regions of our collective life where rationality is totally ignored.

In looking up “cloture” on Online Etymology Dictionary, I came across this interesting quote from the nineteenth century:

In foreign countries the Clôture has been used notoriously to barricade up a majority against the “pestilent”" criticism of a minority, and in this country every “whip” and force is employed by the majority to re-assert its continued supremacy and to keep its ranks intact whenever attacked. How this one-sided struggle to maintain solidarity can be construed into “good for all” is inexplicable in the sense uttered. [“The clôture and the Recent Debate, a Letter to Sir J. Lubbock,” London, 1882]

Evidently cloture has “evolved.” Now it is used, in our Senate, by a minority to get its way—and the will of the people be damned. But when children are taught their Civics (unless all civics has been swallowed by Social Studies, as I expect it has), I bet the teachers do not go into conniption fits of stress trying to explain to their students how you average rationality.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Maddening to Forget Your Origami

One of my Aha! moments in studying sub-cellular biology came when I learned that proteins, which are carefully-sequenced amino acids, rapidly fold into shapes more or less spontaneously. “More or less” because other factors are involved, among them the presence of water, salts, temperature, and so-called chaperons that help with the folding. The chaperones are yet other proteins; they also participate in the unfolding of proteins. What with such external factors present, a protein intended to be useful in cellular life because it has a certain (if sometimes very complex) shape, proteins may unfold or fail to fold properly. Then troubles begin. The same protein that delivers a service may turn toxic when still, or again, a strand.

Yesterday I mentioned a Wall Street Journal story on Mad-Cow disease—but I didn’t read it. Brigitte, who never passes a scientific story without close scrutiny, and recognizing a subject I ought to read about, flagged it for me. I read it this morning and discovered that origami-challenged proteins are at the core not only of Mad-Cow disease but also Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease—and Type II diabetes, for that matter. I am showing a strand (bad) and a fold (good) of the same chain of protein from Wikipedia (link).

Brigitte also tracks my own constantly folding ideas of the cosmic. Thus for motivation she annotated the WSJ illustration, similar to the one that I’m showing, with the words: “Bohm’s Universe?” This reference is to David Bohm, the physicist, who suggested that the visible cosmos is a tiny, unfolded part of the Great Universe, which is deeply implicated. Hence ours is a fallen world, the GU is the real one. As above, so below. In each case unfolding leads to madness.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Errant Epistemology

I esteem episteme, which is the common Greek for knowledge.
I must have heard it, sure enough, when I attended college.
But another problem rises when I encounter and behold
Epistemology—a word I’ve met with times untold
While stirring arcane pools of mud with my rather shortish stick.

It sounds like water dripping over gravel on the double-quick,
An admirable sound it is, but yet I do tend to forget
The meaning of this Greekish modern manufactured sobriquet.
It dates to 1865, coined by a Scot philosopher,
Fond of strange Friedrich Hegel he, by name James Ferrier.

So here’s a word amalgamated from broken bits and shards
Not some gem discovered in the works of dead Hellenic bards.
In English it means “theory of knowledge” pure and simple
Instead I garble up the letters of its starting, stylish dimple
And mistake it for a variant of Etymology.

Not so. It is my bad. Alas our wisdom bristles with -logies.
What does that ending mean? It means “discourse,” blah, blah, mere learned talk.
It is the sounds that issue as the learned hold forth on their walk
About. It occurred that if I wrote my own -logy I might remember
The sense of epistemology when it comes around—the next December.

But do not bet on it.

Don’t Gift Me That

Reification marches on. More on that word may be found on this blog (link), but in that note I failed to mention one meaning of the word. It also means to drain the life out of something, thus to make it seem like a corpse. Today the Wall Street Journal features an article on its Personal page titled “The Science Behind Gifting.” It uses two words that both do this—and then it concentrates on that mo-mo-modern linguistic delight, regifting. The science consists of asking people questions in surveys, which, like “gifting,” comes about as close to rendering Nothingness tangible, audible, and tactile as I am able to imagine. Below that article WSJ gifts me with news of mad-cow disease, to the right with news about heart attacks (actually how to avoid them by dieting). I’d rather catch the one or be felled by the other than learn to manage my gifting. Bah! Humbug!