Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Robots are Coming?

No. The robots are here. Not the kind that TV channels love—creatures that walk on metal legs and, yes, even on uneven ground. Not the kind that excel in deboning poultry; that effort is stymied by the perverse individuality of chickens. Not the kind that Costco, we hope, will soon offer to vacuum and de-clutter our home; for those we might have to wait forever. But the robots are here, nonetheless. Two cases. One was in the public domain, a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “Software Raises Bars for Hiring.” It identified robotic methods of screening job applications. You apply, you are rejected, and the only actual human involvement was yours—in submitting the application and viewing the rejection. The other was a robo-call, so-called, telling us that our cash card may have been compromised. We were instructed by the female-voiced robo to call the number on the back of the card. This robot, to be sure, while having a voice, had neither arms nor legs and won’t ever enjoy tongue-in-cheek admiration in a feature shown at the end of a news hour. Calling that number embroiled us in a twenty-minute interaction with another female robot. It could understand voice commands but preferred us to key in a quite substantial number of numbers before, finally, after Brigitte answering another twenty questions, we finally reached None of the Above and then—pressing the number 4 on the phone—we finally reached a human voice. More numbers were demanded. At last came the answer. Nothing’s wrong with our cash card. Everything is hanky-dory. As for that call, the living female voice on the other end, and you could actually hear a human intonation, meant specifically for Brigitte’s understanding, said. “Well, you know those things. Those are all robo-calls. It was probably just some glitch.” — A glitch we might have done without. Leaving me, tomorrow, to do the vacuuming. Alas, I can’t wait any longer.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not this, Not That

C-Span brought a program titled “Religious Freedom and Public Policy” yesterday, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. EPPC is “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues in public policy.” Watching it, I got to thinking about Robert Graves, the poet—whose lead I follow when it comes to the conflict discussed by EPPC’s panel.

The shrouded theme of this conference was what might be called a divide based on different views of sexuality broadly viewed. I call it a shrouded theme because the overt discussion centered on rights, particularly the rights of religious communities; but beneath that loomed two issues that are non-negotiable on either the hard left or the hard right: gay rights and abortion rights.

I thought of Graves, the poet of the White Goddess, because this conflict really centers on the Patriarchal Order, which the category “Judeo-Christian” reduces to a single phrase, and which the modernist rights movement challenges by its initiatives. The Matriarchal Order seems to have been overcome at least four thousand years ago. Therefore, for all practical purposes, it has virtually no resonance at all—except to poets; and there is also that brief flash of courtesy and courtly love in medieval times. Now my views on Modernism are probably known to be negative—but of one of its aspects I highly approve. It is the overt and energetic assertion that females are actually fully human.

If they were—in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition—we would have female priests, bishops, and popes, say; female rabbis; and, among the patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches, the occasional matriarch. But in all of these traditions, the female is subordinated—even when she achieves extraordinary rank. Modernity gives women genuine equality—de jure, anyway if not in meaningful practice. But this impulse in Modernity does not go far enough. Graves and I at minimum wouldn’t stop at equality. We’d go a whole lot further. Therefore, overflying this scene, as I was doing yesterday, and looking for a place to land and rest, I couldn’t find a perch either on the left or on the right. Not this, not that.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Sometimes Slippery Slope

Or should I say that the ice is sometimes very thin? No. I think I’ll stick with Maslow’s hierarchies of needs; it presents a nice slope. A simple thing like a power outage—especially when you discover it at 11:30 at night, returning from a Memorial Day spent with family far from here—can plunge you straight from the dark blue into the red. And it doesn’t get easier with repetition. The last time this happened was in August of 2010. Bad transformers—then and now—with big (if spectacular) electric arcs sizzling and lighting up the night in white to orange to red flares. This one was over by 1:30 this morning, but since the last one lasted, intermittently, for better than a week, we walk about with fingers crossed.

Oh, and yes. We sometimes walk in our innocent habit-world admiring the decorations frost has formed on the branches of nearby trees, thinking exalted thoughts about beauty, symmetry, and the wonders of nature—when, suddenly, crack! And we find ourselves waist deep in water. The sublime parts of us are still sticking out, but, unfortunately, we’re right up to our “friendship, family, and sexual intimacy” in freezing nasty water.  
Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).

Monday, May 28, 2012

On War, a New Edition?

The time has come, it seems to me, for some latter-day Carl von Clausewitz to write a new book on war. This came to mind as I read this morning a story in the New York Times about an ongoing debate about U.S. war-doctrine at West Point, particularly regarding counter-insurgency—described in the story as “the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools, and government.” Can the latter part of that description be shortened to “nation building”?

I had an occasion the other day (May 15) to mention Clausewitz’s famous saying that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Our political aim in pursuing war appears to be to rebuild other nations. In the old days the object of war was either defeating an organized opponent, followed by extracting tribute while leaving it otherwise alone or the incorporation of the conquered realm into the victor’s own. Nation building is a kind of intermediate result. We remake the conquered into another kind of nation; after that happy outcome, they act in concert with us without requiring direct administration.

Where does counter-insurgency come into the picture? It enters for the paradoxical reason that our might is so great, conquest, per se, is a forgone conclusion. No effective conventional defense is possible. Insurgency arises, however, because in the modern world, where everything is so connected, it is possible to “continue war by other means,” thus by terrorist disruptions of the new order, by blowing up people, buildings, pipelines, and what have you. To which, under the Petraeus doctrine, the proper response is bribing the locals with roads and schools while “training” soldiers and police and “educating” the carefully selected governing elite by frequent harangues against corruption (the stick) and offers of greater subsidies (the carrot).

Neo-Clausewitz might begin by examining the rationale for nation building as a sufficient cause for war. The old Clausewitz characterized war as “a fascinating trinity” made up of violence (hatred and enmity, resident in the folk), chance (which governs the activities of generals and soldiers), and political aims (in the hands of government). In modern war the attacking government produces the first of these by fear-mongering and propaganda (weapons of mass destruction, etc.) else the war would have no backing. Insurgency, in turn, is aimed at the attacker’s population as well—making the people back home wonder if this disaster will ever end. The happy conveyor of both is the Media, with opportunities to underwrite it all with advertising.

Neo-Clausewitz has his work cut out for him or her. That it might be a her is obvious from another story today (in the Washington Post), suggesting that the fate of many female veterans, thrown back into our nation’s loving care, is to be homeless. As we celebrate the heroes today, pondering such matters might be proper as hands rest over hearts.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Vespasian: Jobs Over Machines

A mere snippet within a snippet, thus one story on yesterday’s PBS Newshour, titled “Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete,” related that the emperor Vespasian (9-79) had once declined to approve labor-saving machinery for lifting heavy objects, like columns, saying that it would reduce employment. This surprised me. I went on a search to find out more. Here is a quote from a book, by a professor at City College of New York:

The beginning of Rome’s long decline might symbolically be traced to a seemingly minor incident that occurred early in the reign of Vespasian. Vespasian reached Rome in October AD 70, resolved to restore order and discipline to a Roman government that had languished under Nero and several dissolute successors. He embarked on a vigorous construction program which included the Colosseum. Suetonius relates that an inventor approached the emperor with plans for  a hoisting machine that would greatly reduce the need for manpower but was rebuffed with the reply, “I must feed my poor.” Vespasian feared the machine would exacerbate unemployment in a society already overrun by idlers and slaves. Labor saving devices such as the water wheel were not wanted and consequently were neglected until there was a significant decline in both the general population and the number of slaves late in the 4th century. But a society that does not use its inventors will eventually lose its inventors.
     [Stanley David Gedzelman, The Soul of All Scenery: A History of the Sky in Art, link, see Chapter 3]

The source of the story is thus the historian, Suetonius (circa 70-130). What amuses me about the quote, above, is the author’s view that Roman decline might be traced from one emperor’s nixing of labor-saving machines—rather than, say, from the civil wars that brought about the empire itself. Vespasian was a good emperor; he represents a kind of breath taken by Rome in the midst of its rush to its ultimate Decline and Fall. Here was an emperor who actually thought about the laboring people. Can anyone provide me with a second example of action such as this at the highest levels since—rather than mere talk?

Added Later. Of course this story was right on my bookshelf all along. Here Suetonius’ own words:

He [Vespasian] first paid teachers of Latin and Greek rhetoric a regular annual salary of 1,000 gold pieces from the Privy Purse; he also awarded magnificent prizes and lavish rewards to leading poets, and to artists as well, notably the restorers of the Venus of Cos and the Colossus. An engineer offered to haul some huge columns up to the Capitol at moderate expense by a simple mechanical contrivance, but Vespasian declined his services; ‘I must always ensure,’ he said ‘that the working classes earn enough money to buy themselves food.’ Nevertheless, he paid the engineer a very handsome fee.
     [Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars]

When one reads something like this in other times—and the economy of old is still humming, and productivity still means something positive, and the future is not as yet emergent—the story goes by without notice—especially in a context where teachers earn big bucks, poets get rewards, and artists are receiving honors. And that “handsome fee” to the soon-to-be-obsolete inventor gives this story a kind of happy closure.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Dragon Has Landed

In Ghulf Genes, the novel, two categories of spaceships come to be developed after the discovery of zerofric, the gravity-attenuating substance. The big ones are called Whales, and the biggest of them Leviathans, later SuperLevs. But a competing and much smaller spaceship comes to be developed and plays a major role throughout that history of the future. It is known as the Dragon.

Now for the history of the present. Today SpaceX Corporation’s first vehicle, the Dragon, has linked with the International Space Station! It is the first-ever privately developed space capsule. The image I’m showing, the dragon and its rocket, the dark band separates them, comes from a video simulation provided by the company (link). The vehicle is the Falcon 9. It was launched last Tuesday, May 22. Congratulations, folks. It feels like a new dawn, actually!

It gives me a kind of nostalgic pleasure to have lived long enough to see this. Nostalgia? In this context it is a genuine sci-fi phenomenon. I saw the future in the past. And now the presents projects the future I once saw. Okay. What were they going to call it—if not the Dragon? The Pigeon? But the Takashita mission is still ahead…

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Case of Dr. Shakil Afridi

Occasionally a story illustrates the deeper problems underneath our international policies. The case in point is the arrest and trial of one Dr. Shakil Afridi in Pakistan followed by his sentence to 33 years in prison. Afridi aided the CIA in obtaining DNA samples that later helped us pinpoint Osama bin Laden’s location in that country.

How one characterizes such phenomena all depends on the words used. Supposing we say that Pakistan is “an ally in the war on terror.” Or supposing that we say that Pakistan is “an imperfect U.S. colony.” “Colony” in that latter phrase would acknowledge that our money has deformed Pakistan by funding its military (here some data on LaMarotte); “imperfect” would acknowledge that that Muslim culture remains resistant, whenever possible, to U.S. dictates. It would also acknowledge that we are, too, a neo-colonial power. Our free-wheeling ways have gradually forced the inner conflict in Pakistan to rise into clear view, witness Pakistan’s blocking shipments through its territory as it demands an ever higher price. And while Pakistan cannot find the will to expel us outright, they can and do act energetically against individuals who violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. Afridi did that by facilitating an altogether illegal U.S. military raid inside their country; drone attacks in the border region do not, evidently, cause the same sharp pain. That Pakistan is selling pieces of its sovereignty for money is, of course, obvious. Therefore I speak of an “inner conflict” in that realm.

Rule of law? No. We do not follow it. The interesting thing is that the wedges we drive into foreign cultures magically appear within our own. “Hi, kids. What did you do in school today?” — “Never mind that, Daddy. What did you do at work today?” — “Well…” chuckles endearingly, “I managed to make a big score in the market using some insider dope. Hey. We’re going to Hawaii to celebrate—as soon as school is out.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Quadragesimo Anno - Fast!

Someone has conducted a poll trying to discover what characteristics convince viewers that a pundit or other public figure is credible. The elevating result? Those who speak fastest are viewed as really knowing their stuff. We got to analyzing this momentous discovery. For starters, there are two ways of imbibing television fare. One is by listening to the content of the message, thus its intelligible meaning. The other is to scan the image for its emotional message. And in the second case, the energized fast-speaker will, of course, look more authentic and certain, never mind what he or she is actually saying.

We went on from there. Used to be, we said. Used to be that with much thought and labor the Pope would prepare a letter to the people, an encyclical, written in Latin, translated into many languages, and passed out. First bishops would read and study it, then priests in even greater numbers, finally some summaries would be presented at Sunday sermons to countless congregations. To pick an example, how about the 1931 Quadragesimo Anno, a letter to the public on “the reconstruction of the public order.”

We got to imagining how vastly improved our lives would be if Pope Pius XI would have memorized what he had written and then, having been trained in passionate fast-speaking, would have speed-orated, dare we say rapped, the whole thing to masses assembled to hear the message in St. Peter’s Square. Ah, the opportunities missed for failing to embrace the latest innovation back in the long ago.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Creative Destruction?

Can capitalism survive? No. I do not think it can.
     [Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942, in the Prologue to Part II]

What’s interesting about this quote is that it comes from the well-known economist, Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) who made the phrase creative destruction widely known. Since then it has graduated to become the all-purpose explanation and justification for whatever chaos comes down to us from the business sector. The phrase is used as if it were a law of nature. Hey, things fall down. It’s gravity. Throw up the hands, look heaven-ward—by way of saying, What can we do? It’s written in the stars. All of our blessings come by its way, as all life comes from the sun—that also rises.

David Brooks got me thinking about that. For the last two weeks or so, he has been invoking the Holy Words on radio, television, and today in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, each time defending the likes of Bain Capital.

Although the phrase is his, Schumpeter got the idea from Marx. Marx repeatedly pointed to economic crises and their destructive tendency—not only destroying production but also productive forces. A relevant summary comes from the Communist Manifesto (1848): “And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.” The first is Schumpeter’s “destruction,” the second his “creative.” But while Schumpeter streamlined Marx’s diagnosis, he also noted that the destruction of capitalism reaches beyond the economic; it also destroys and transforms the social. And in the long run capitalism therefore destroys itself.

Law of nature it isn’t, actually, creative destruction. If I look around for somewhat analogous actual laws, what I see is birth and death, growth and decay, and interwoven living systems well-known for their stability and resistance to destruction: ecosystems. When a person lives a healthy and well-adapted life, that life will end in death. And yes, What can you do? It’s written in the stars. But when a person dies because of an overdose of heroin, after a brief life of absolute frenzy, that’s creative destruction. But should we really call it that?

Monday, May 21, 2012


Masses are moved by stimulus, or lack of it, in fascinating patterns. Birds feeding on grains that Brigitte spread, out back, scatter in a burst when I open the screen door. We used to visit a lake when our children were little where ducks had a favorite spot. You needed but approach it, and they came toward you. People often threw bits of bread to them. The ducks came because of the bread, the people came because of the ducks. The first time we saw this we made a mental note to bring our dried bread in a sack the next time we came. So did others, obviously. Stimulus.

Fish swim in circles—which fascinates biologists. Is the behavior adopted to confuse predators? Or are schools of fish simply self-organizing entities, each individual reading the others’ behavior and doing likewise? Long ago I read a fascinating study of this. The authors observed that a circling school can be disrupted by a single fish that suddenly veers off, out of the circle. All those around it immediately follow, and the pattern then changes. Why do they circle? Lack of stimulus. Why did that single fish suddenly veer? Presence of stimulus.

Stimulus is ultimately information signaling change—and the behavior is based on its interpretation. Does it signal potential gain or loss? If neither, it isn’t stimulus. Amusingly the word’s root is the ancient Proto-Indo-European sti, meaning point, prick, pierce. We get the word “stick” from it; the carrot and the stick.

What I find fascinating is how this very basic tendency works in humanity. The stimulus is often absolutely miles removed from producing any pleasure or pain to those swimming in that school. Such is the case in the three stimuli that have dominated the news of late: the JP Morgan Chase thing, the Facebook IPO, and the Greek elections. It must be important if so many birds are flying, fish are massively veering, editors front-paging, and pundits punting on TV.

Over the years I’ve noticed something interesting during the two seasons when birds get very clubby and swarm around together, Spring and Fall. Occasionally when I disturb them inadvertently at feeding, the great majority will fly away but one or two will stay on the grass or concrete and just keep pecking away. Looking at them closely, I’ve wondered. They always seem older to me, scruffier. Is your hearing failing, old fellow? Or have you just gotten wiser?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tale of the Pedometer

In this world where self-promotion has become Job 1—and the practice has captured ordinary people, so that at times I experience a bullet spray of people I’ve never met who wish to “friend” me on Facebook—I have come to question bursting health-news tips. The latest is that to live forever (meaning to reach about 80), we must take 10,000 steps a day. Fair enough. So let’s just see what that might mean. A memory came as Brigitte was telling me about this. I had a pedometer somewhere. Memory is a wonderful thing. I wonder how many “deep” memories we ought to have “daily” to avoid Alzheimer’s disease? In any case my memory produced an image of the center drawer of my upstairs desk. Quite a few odd fellows live there. Sure enough, the pedometer was there.

It happens to be an OMRON HJ-112 pedometer. We got it ages ago. A trip to Rite Aid for a new battery ($4.99), and Brigitte began to count her steps. It turned out that ordinary life produces a ridiculously low number—though Brigitte is constantly in motion all day long. Around 1,000-2,000. Eager not to miss even a few, getting ready for her aquadynamics session at home, she strapped it to her bathing suit while fetching, you know, the shoes, the towels, bag, and all the rest. But memory can also be a chancy thing. By the time she got to the pool, she had forgotten that she was still wearing it. You can guess the rest.

Now these things cost around $37-plus. So here was this thing, discovered as she was drying off, full of water. You couldn’t even see the display for the many tiny bubbles. Later I tried to dry it out in the heat of a powerful work-bench lamp, but all that did was turn the display midnight-black. So it came to rest on my downstairs desk, a simple folding table. It lay there for some days. Then, to my astonishment one morning, as I sat down to write in my diary, I saw that OMRON had miraculously recovered. Everything worked again as if the little thing had never been baptized—including its newly acquired battery.

Some things work—even these days. But we kind of wonder who came up with those 10,000 steps a day? Let’s see. There are all kinds of fancy sports-shoe producers, sweatband makers, and, also, manufacturers of pedometers. But, frankly, OMRON, if you make them that good, you’re simply missing out on sales, despite the great assist you recently got from the medical community.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

For a While, We Lived in SRI

I like to play with titles, so please indulge me. This post is really about the HRE, but since English was not commonly spoken there, the appropriate abbreviations for this space are HRR (taken from German), IRS (taken from Latin to please our tax collectors), and SRI (based on the Italian). That last is meaningful to me because I also, for a while, worked at MRI, and SRI was one of our formidable competitors. Well, stop playing in the mud, Arzénka.

All of those acronyms are for the Holy Roman Empire. It extended in time from 962 to 1806 and included (going top left down and then top right upwards) what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, a slice of France, Switzerland, most of Italy, Slovenia, much of Austria, the Czech Republic, a bit of Poland, and Germany in the center. Here is a nice map (clicking will enlarge it, going to the source, below, produces a detailed version):

The map (Wikipedia, link) is from a German source and identifies this region as the Ottonian and Salian dynasties that ruled the HRE; their predecessors were the Carolingians. The abbreviations briefly: HZT means Herzogtum, duchy. KGR means Königreich, kingdom. MGFT means Mark Grafschaft; the Mark is a march, now an obsolete English word meaning boundary, therefore a border region; the Graf is a count and a Grafschaft is a county.

Brigitte was born in Poland out of reach of the HRE; I saw the light in Hungary, also beyond the pale. But two of our children were born within the late Holy Roman Empire, Barbara to the Northeast, Monique almost in the center. Our third child, Michelle, now lives in Paris, which was beyond the HRE’s borders too; but she was born in a place no geographer could find in the year 1000, the date of this map.

I came across this splendid map yesterday in one of my efforts to correct my biases about the past. I looked first at the eleventh and then the eighth centuries. In the eighth Charles Martel fought the Battle of Tours; with that he stopped Saracen expansion into Europe and also, if indirectly, laid the foundations of what would ultimately become the HRE. Michelle, who spent some years in Tours as an exchange and later as a college student, may have been born far from the shores of HRE, but she was, as it were, in on the beginnings.

When we go as far back as the eighth, it becomes evident that Europe was very much still in the process of organizing itself. Tribes and bands held sway on its edges, regions which the Roman power of old had not yet civilized. These were being gathered into very rough kingdoms that treated war as a means of wealth-assembly. To be living in some parts of Europe then was not unlike living in certain parts of Africa now—and not as an American, European, or Asian there to trade or to do good works, but as a native. The establishment of ever larger regions of uniform and stable administration was a powerful trend in Europe then and carried out by violent means. In that process the formation of the HRE was one of the marvels although, as Voltaire is invariably quoted, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Mind you, the process is still going on. It is the formation of a United Europe, presently at a rocky state because one of the countries on its economic “marches,” Greece, is acting unruly.

Now for those abbreviations. HRR is Heiliges Römisches Reich, although the full name added Deutscher Nation, thus “of the German nation.” IRS is taken from the Latin Imperium Romanum Sacrum. The SRI is Italian: Sacro Romano Impero. Our modern, American SRI is Stanford Research Institute, and I worked for Midwest Research Institute, MRI.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Black Golden Age

The poetic imposition of metallic ages upon history—always viewed in retrospect or awaiting realization in the future, because we always, always live in the bottom-most iron age, and with clay feet yet—arises, I think, from the same faculty where poetry arises, a sense that we come from a higher realm. When ages are projected into the past or the future, the times are secular. We’re living in the flatlands. When such a state is projected vertically to Heaven, the times are religious. Progress is the word we use to say that we’re approaching—in horizontal time, of course—the Golden Age. But when chaos begins to cloud up the sky to such an extent we no longer see the promised light of dawn just below the horizon, there is a tendency to imagine that times past might have been much better and that we are declining.

I confess this to be one of my failures—hence frequent contrasts here between the secular and the religious, with the implication added that the religious is better. But when I look at things through the lens of daily life, is that really true? From time to time I make some efforts to check. It’s easy to do. I pick a century and look up what happened then. The process is always sobering, although I learn some history. I put a magnifying glass on any past period, and what I see is pretty much the same thing. What history records are so-called important events—almost always wars. The well-off are always very few, the majority always labors in some misery, certainly those at the margins. Punctuating this are names of wise people here and there, the names of great books or sagas.

The important difference between all earlier ages and ours came with the invention of ways to use fossil fuels—and then their massive exploitation. This lifted the status of the masses all across the world. But. But it also brought about an unprecedented growth in population quite unthinkable, in fact, had coal and oil not happened. Progress therefore has had an actual physical underpinning. And if we now feel a decline—and who can doubt it—it is because the population is still growing while the Age of Fossils is pumping its way to a terminus.

The poets of old were expressing something inwardly felt but wrongly projected. And their imaginations failed them. They settled on the metals, rather than on organic chemicals. If Virgil had projected an Age of Oil, he would have been right on target. Alas, for my grandchildren’s children that age is also coming to an end.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Nickeled and Half-Dimed

The 1794 Half-Disme
The Original Nickel

Yesterday was the 146th birthday of the Nickel, the coin. I chanced across this fact in another context. The first nickel was 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, but the nickel gave it its name; today’s nickel still has the same composition. It came into use in 1866 thanks to a major lobbying effort by nickel interests. Its predecessor was the half-disme, also called the half-dime, the name taken from an obsolete French word meaning “a tenth.” The half-dime was mostly silver. The appearance of the nickel, the disappearance of the half-dime—and the time when all this happened—testifies to the truth of Gresham’s law. Gold and silver coinage virtually disappeared from circulation during the Civil War; in those uncertain times, people held on to real value, which was in the metal itself, not the value that it denominated; after the war ended it was time to rework the coinage again.

I have the image of the half-dime from CoinTalk (link), showing the second version of it; the first, also shown at the link, was issued in 1792. The images of the original nickel are from Wikipedia (link).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pushing the Reset Button

Strikes me that one symptom of a major change in culture—from a religious age to a secular—is that thinkers of the era find it necessary to start at the beginning again. This occurred to me while reading that absolutely delightful book, Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. I’m not done yet, but the early chapters have all the charm of a precocious child explaining what the world is all about in plain English, as it were, sometimes pointing out the cumbersome nonsense that the adults have said, and how befuddled they’d become. That bright-child image is there, for me, despite the fact that Hobbes was 62-63 as he was penning those lines. He is a contemporary of Descartes who, a little earlier, had done the same sort of thing by discovering that he is because he thinks. If my reading of the stages of Greek civilization are more or less correct, then Aristotle made his monumental effort to explain all things known, starting with the basics, as it were, at the same stage of that culture that Hobbes and Descartes occupied in ours. Going the other way, from a secular age to the religious, has a quite different character—largely hidden from view by vast clouds of chaos that surround the decline and fall of the secular.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Persuasion

One knows, of course, that war will be the product of the political intercourse of governments and peoples; but one is accustomed to think that, with war, all interaction will cease and an entirely different situation will begin, a situation dominated by its own laws. We assert, to the contrary, that war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with the intermixing of other means.
     [Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book Eight, Chapter 5]

Clausewitz here extends politics to encompass war. It is equally valid to extend politics in the other direction to include persuasion. That might be formulated as follows: “Persuasion is nothing but the most efficient form of war; it gets the desired results with words, music, and images.”  At the root of all three is conflict, therefore resistance, and knowing where on the persuasion-war spectrum something is situated is readily measured by the amount of resistance present. Therefore the entire spectrum is related to the exercise of power. It strikes me that in 1831, when Clausewitz died with his book on war not quite finished, persuasion in its modern form was still largely concentrated in the political realm—and that realm was relatively small. It has spread since then, suggesting a widespread institutionalization of conflict, read struggle for power, across all aspects of social life. Measuring the relative presence of persuasion and how deeply it penetrates down to everyday life is to measure the state of a society. Culture means a suspension of the war of all against all that nature is supposed to be. Roughly to date the beginnings of modernity may be accomplished by discovering that that phrase comes from Thomas Hobbes. Seventeenth century.

Monday, May 14, 2012

No Day Without Fabae

I was just driving out of a garden store the other day. I’d just purchased three new dill plants to add to those Brigitte had already coaxed into early rising in small pots. We are preparing the nectar for the butterflies. As luck would have it—and as a kind of underlining of our own current concerns—came a story, just then, on the radio, about Thomas Jefferson’s great gardens at Monticello, which have been reconstituted, as it were. Jefferson ate little meat and, a passionate grower, cultivated 330 vegetable varieties. Brigitte has always been of the same bent and persuasion, and I am, as it were, her acolyte. Our diet is quite Jeffersonian. No day without fabae in our house. The word is Latin for beans.

Beans came to mind yesterday as I was having my usual vegetable soup for lunch which—along with peas, carrots, broccoli, celery, leeks, and such—always has one or two varieties of beans. It suddenly occurred to me that, though I eat them daily, I’d no idea how beans grow in the garden. In fact, such is my ignorance, briefly I imaged them sort of clustering, out in the open in bunches, like grapes—but that thought didn’t last. My next notion was: Surely they must grow in pods, like peas. Confirming that impression was that green beans, so called, do, don’t they, suggest that those longish green things have something inside them—but we don’t bother shelling them out. Right on. And the suspicion that then arose simultaneously, that peas might also be beans, also turned out to be right. Great idea for an acolyte’s research. I set to work.

Looking at nature counters the harm produced by looking at humanity. Beans belong to the Kingdom of Plantae (no surprise there). Next they are members of the Order of Fabales, the flowering plants. Within that order they belong to the Family of Fabaceae, called the legumes. That last word already tells the acolyte a lot if he bothers to trace the roots of that word. It comes from the Latin legere, to gather—thus to gather into pods. Those pods, it turns out, are the ovaries that develop in the center of the flowers. They emerge from the bloom itself and then, as this “pregnancy” advances, although the babies resting in the ovum are actually just seeds, the object becomes very large and long: the pod.

As my diagram shows, quite a rich array of protein-rich edible plants come from this family, including my most favorite foods: peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts. It surprised me to discover licorice and alfalfa in this tribe. Licorice, however, yields a flavor and it is the alfalfa plant itself, not its beans, that are the mainstay of livestock diets; both plants, however, feature, like the others, seeds that are gathered into pods.

My illustration is from Wikipedia (link) and shows the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). Phaseolus is the Greek for kidney-bean.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Chest Swells With Pride

Herewith a paragraph from the Smithsonian magazine (January 2012), introducing a clutch of brief articles on what they dub evotourism. The Evo there stands for evolution.
And what a wild ride it’s been. Some 3.5 billion years separate the first primordial microbes and the emergence of a species capable of creating the Taj Mahal, Pride and Prejudice, and “Monday Night Football.”

Ice-Pick in Hand

I would draw attention to the Congressional appropriations bill. It would effectively gut the U.S. Bureau of the Census. A more detailed summary is presented on LaMarotte (link).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Some Things Are Not Connected

All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons of the earth.
Man did not weave the web of life,
He is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
He does to himself.
Chief Seattle

A Google search for “all things are connected” produces quite a few that cite this supposed poem by a real American Indian chief whose name was probably Si’ahl, but English-Speakers made Seattle from it—and then named a city after him. I saw, I read, I doubted. The flavor of that verse is too, too, too twentieth century. Took a moment’s digging to confirm it. American enterprise all the way. First, the three sentences that make up this verse were written by a television writer called Ted Perry as part of the script for a film called Home. Next, another enterprising writer lifted them from here and there and put them together as a poem. And since then all sorts of people have quoted Chief Seattle aka Perry, among them Al Gore. provides the evidence (link)—confirmed by Wikiquote (here). Snopes? Wikiquote? Well, you have to believe somebody.

In Praise of Walls

The $2 billion trembler at J.P. Morgan Chase yesterday, on the economic Richter scale no more than 4 in magnitude (“Noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises. Significant damage unlikely.”) again brought back the notion that some organs of society are too big to fail, that everything’s connected, and so on. Those two idea are linked, of course. If things were properly organized, walls of all kinds would protect us. Connections enable us to build huge social structures, but connections that bring the good also, when things go awry, link us to the evil consequences.

Back a ways I read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. It struck me then how vital a role walls played in the foundations of Graeco-Roman—and hence by extension our own—civilization. Here is a link to my summary. Indeed, connection is exposure. But at the very core of biological life is a wall. It is the skin that forms the original cell—an old topic of discussion for Brigitte and me going back to her days of studying biology. Life’s clever resolution of this conflict—between the need both to be connected and to be protected—is the formation of walls that let through what we need and to keep out what can harm.

Would life have succeeded in conquering the globe, as it were, if we all had the same liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart? Nature believes in walls.

As in all things that relate to this dimension, we must find the middle way between conflicts. Unity is good—but when it isn’t structured right, it can become oppressive. Hence the somewhat poorly named subsidiarity principle. It’s poorly named because it says that the higher the power the more it should be in the background —whereas we tend to think of government as the be-all, end-all manager on high. The principle applied says that the federal should not do what the states can, states must avoid what counties do, counties what towns and cities do, and the last level should not attempt to do what the household can do best. Government as last resort. The meaning of the word comes from “sitting behind”—waiting, in other words, to help, but only when necessary. This principle arises within Catholic doctrine—paradoxically, but only if that tradition is misunderstood: it is assumed that Catholicism is a top-down sort of thing—and urging this principle, it seems to be promoting libertarianism. A relatively modern formulation of this principle is found in the papal encyclical, Quadrogesimo Anno (1931). I’ve written a post on it a while back on the old LaMarotte (link).

As in all things, the knowledge is there, the rules are known. We can read the laws by studying nature; the cell is a good starting point. The application of these laws, however, requires rather a high level of cultural awareness, insight, and unity of purpose—which, in the current Information Age, are difficult to find.

Friday, May 11, 2012


It struck me this morning that yesterday had been a weird day, the news causing me frenzies in which I started to imagine that dogs might learn to talk and, to calm myself, I turned to the contemplation of camels’ humps. I zapped the dog-post this morning; it didn’t go far enough, and the weirdness had passed. But then that word caught my attention; I had never looked it up before. It comes from Germanic roots and, turns out, has a wonderfully pertinent meaning when applied to stuff that’s coming down, as it were.

The word’s root meaning is “that which comes,” hence “fate” or “destiny.” It survives in modern German as wird, a word that simply means shall or will, as in “It shall happen” or “That will surely come about.” In Germanic mythology, the three fates are named Future, Present, and Past, their names found in the Edda. Urd, as the Norwegians spell it, is the first, and the Future means Fate. And the weird sisters, as we know them in English, get their name from Urd. The word has taken on the sense of deformity and ugliness not because the sisters were ugly (see inset, for instance, from a poster advertising a women’s magazine (link)) but because the future tends to be that way. And it was, yesterday, as it morphed into the present.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Two Humps or One

The other day I poked some fun at human ears in a post on Borderzone (“Blank Simian Rote”). The subject has a serious aspect, to be sure. Ears illustrate that nature cares nought for aesthetics when it conflicts with efficient functionality—something that even a quite cursory foray into biology confirms. Aesthetics? The question Nature answers is, “Does it work?” Its answer to “Yes, but is it art?” is always, “What is that?” Which tells me that we’re transcendental beings.

An even more delightful example of Nature’s functional approach to “design” is the camel’s back. These come in onesies and twosies, the first carried by the Dromedary the other by the Bactrian camel; both belong to the genus Camelus. The very fact that two species exist, one with a single, one with two humps, is the sort of thing that pleases Brigitte: duality rules. Dromedaries are at home in northern Africa and are in the majority (14 million); Bactrians live in China’s Gobi desert and in Mongolia (1.4 million). Most of Camelus is domesticated—telling me that fossil fuels do not rule everywhere.

The camel’s hump collects and concentrates fatty tissue, evidently to keep camels cool. Living in hot desert climates, they need far less insulation—and indeed, when it is present, they get too hot; but they still need the fat for other vital purposes. So, what to do? Why not put it all in one place, or two—and high up, out of the way. 

Are there humpless camels? Not camels. But there are camelids. That word comes from Camelidae, the Family above the Genus. Humplessness came first. Among the camelids are such creatures as llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas native to South America; they’re aesthetically much more pleasing to the human eye; not a hump in sight.
Picture credits to Wikipedia, here. I do love that Wikipedia Commons...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Approaching Limits

The philosopher Mortimer Adler, always desirous of showing that humanity is different in kind from other living creatures, not just in degree, argued that humanity is distinguished by having an almost unlimited potential which its members may or may not actually develop. We won’t find the same uniformity of behavior in people, Adler argued, that we find in other species.

By contrast the behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, argued quite the contrary. Skinner invented the Skinner box to demonstrated operant conditioning. It had an electrified floor (it could shock the test subject), a lever to cause food to be dispensed, and a communication port to signal when it was “all right” to press the lever—and when it was dangerous. Suppose now that some aliens make a Skinner box large enough to hold a person. They provide it with the same apparatus, but now it’s only the little bed, inside the box, that carries electric current. The subject can lie down on the bed only when the light is green—otherwise the bed will deliver a high-voltage jolt. The food-lever will produce a fast-food meal, but only when the light is yellow. They put a traditionalist into the box who will be damned if he’ll conform. He’ll show those aliens that he is human. The light is red but he lies down, writhing in agonies just to show them—but eventually the pain forces him off. He ignores the food lever when the light is yellow—but in a day or two he cannot help himself; he succumbs and wolfs down the fast food meal. Skinner’s great idea (discussed in his Walden Two) was to bring about millennium by engineering the environment so that it would produce the optimal behavior. Chicken and egg. How do you condition those who will engineer the optimal environment? Both Plato and Skinner needed an elite exempted from the drag of original sin.

FDR used to get speeches written by two speech writers, one on this, one on that side of an issue—and then hand these to a third to kind of, you know, blend the two. Thus must we do here. Humanity is a fusion of the all-too-easily conditioned and of the transcending. Human potentials are limited by nature—and nature is transformed, but only to a limit—by humanity.

These thoughts arose in wake of my post yesterday on changes in employment—services taking up the slack produced by enormously increased gains in agricultural productivity. That transformation points at a certain limit, it seems to me. The age-honored mode we follow is that a living, an income, must be earned by work. The work produces what people need to have—goods and services. But what if that which people need requires only a small portion of the labor available? Why in that case we must artificially augment those needs by creating human wants: and consumerism is born. Born—and then absolutely driven to grow, because people need to work to live. And so the products and services multiply. Suddenly Toys R Us—whereas, in my own growing up, a stick, a string, a ball wadded from old bits of cloth (it was World War II then) sufficed us for amusement. And we amused ourselves without uniforms or hordes of adult hoverers, played soccer in a corner of the church yard, and we weren’t members of a league, Little or Big.

Shape-Shifting Archive

Once a blog has grown in size and has many links, in my case often functioning as footnotes, it becomes obvious that the Internet is but a so-so archive. Things don’t stay in place, links go bad. Today I wished to find an essay by Mortimer Adler I’d linked to a while back and discovered that the link now produces commercial pages, a different one each time I click it. I had to edit the post and get rid of the reference. We expect reality to reflect a certain permanence. When I see an apple and bite into it, I expect a certain taste and texture—every time. When I reach for the big brown volume which says Aristotle on its spine, I’m startled to open it and find it filled with the adventures of Superman. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Where Have All The Farmers Gone?

Herewith some interesting numbers rarely discussed in the context I plan to provide. Let me start with a tabulation I derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, except for 1900, the data for which comes from Historical Statistics of the United States. I am showing the share of the service-producing sectors of total employment—with that sector excluding government employees and the total including agricultural employment.

Employment Share of
Service Sector - %
Employment Share of Agriculture - %
The Sum of the Two

This table tells the tale of our current woes. Some pundit on television, updating us all to the obvious, said the other day that “It’s the Economy, Stupid” should really be revised to “It’s Jobs, Stupid.” I couldn’t agree more.

What has happened in one century, one decade, and one year is that we’ve sent our agricultural work force into the cities, and there they have been delivered to a job market that only wants services—indeed cannot survive unless the services increase. They are now, of course, in the aggregate, our largest industrial sector.

The problem is that in hard times, which a capitalist economy is certain to provide, people still need bread, milk, meat, vegetables, and fruit. But they can cut back on services: they can, if they must, avoid tanning or massage parlors, hair salons, fire the personal trainer, curb their appetites for Netflix, postpone that trip, stop going to the movies, send the kids to the cheaper community college, settle rather than sue, and fix that fence on their own rather than hiring a craftsman.

Where have all the farmers gone? To that AAA office that provides you information and personalized maps. To that phone bank hired by the retirement home to raise funds to give you more amenities when you are finally institutionalized and employ other once-farmers to put that big bib around your neck before its feeding time.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Elms Rain Seed

The elms rain seed. They’re feather light, have oval wings.
The merest breath of air now carries these zooming
High or, when it fails, it lets them fall by lightly
Twirling undulating beats down on the grey concrete
To make it look like modernistic carpeting
With speckled gold. Clusters lie on chairs, on the summer
Table’s dark green metal grid, waiting there for broom
Or stick to sweep them down. Longingly downward bound
They are, the little would-be elms. They hope for a
Salvation that they picture as black ground, and in
This man-invaded space that consummation,
Devoutly to be wished, seems from the elm’s perspective
Unreachably distant and hard to realize.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Two Birds with One Flower

Herewith our first Columbine to mark the day (yesterday), when our plants migrated from basement and sunroom back out into the wilds of our backyard. A while back I discovered the merits of domestic recordkeeping, thus using a private blog. Such records are easily indexed and therefore forgotten things are rapidly retrieved. I can therefore now report that our plants went indoors on November 11 and spent six months in Egyptian exile as it were—well just six days shy of six months.

I discovered something wonderful about this plant today. It belongs to the genus Aquilegia, derived from the Latin for “eagle” but is known as Columbine, derived from the Latin for “dove.” (Well, all right all of you dyed-in-the-wool democrats. A pigeon.) These two names—and I have a third as well, but let it be hidden for the moment—derive from different aspects of the flower. The Aquilegia all have what are known as spurred petals, thus petals with a spike, and that formation reminded those who did the naming of eagles’ claws. The small inset, with thanks to Wikipedia (link) shows those spurs—the up-pointing green things. Calling this plant a dove probably comes from the beauty of the flower when it is open, as shown above. The third name no doubt comes from the way the flowers look when they’re just resting: Granny’s Bonnet.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


The strangest vistas manifest when we attend
To children who recall having lived lives before.
It is mundane, almost predicable, what they
Now claim: They had a nicer Mom the last time round,
A nicer house. Mere children now, they’d had a mate
They know by name and children older than they are.

They range from three to five in age when they give voice
To such outlandish matters—by five to seven
It’s all forgotten more or less as once again
The hurly-burly, diurnal stimulus of
Growth claims and enfolds them in the ranks of merely
Average, ho-hum, unremarkable humanity.

Most lives recalled ended abruptly, the person
Dying in violence or accidents—and young.
Only a few whom the Copernicus of Return,
Dr. Ian Stevenson, meticulously
Studied recalled the strange odd interval between—
Spent in a heavenly domain briefly or long.

Then came the time to be reborn again, an angel
Urging such a course, and one among the cases—
At his new birth a boy, who’d spent the interval
In heaven, as he recalled, beside a magic
Waterfall—wished to stay on and not be born at all.

The cases gathered? They are few. In many birthmarks
Show the injuries (stab wounds or bullet tracks) that
Still mark, in this new life, what had cut off the last.
At a glance the evidence suggests that rebirth
Is exceptional, not a rule for everyone—
A dispensation to provide some souls a second chance.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Scale’s the Thing

In a way it pleases me that some nations drive on the left, some on the right, that some homes hang the toilet roll so that the sheet comes from the back, others so it unfurls up front. It pleases me that the metric hasn’t conquered all and that the inch still survives. Vive la difference.

Yesterday I quoted a bit of verse using the word milliard; Brigitte’s comment pointed out that we don’t use that number here. It is European. She wondered about the difference.

Well, according to the French, who claim to have invented both ways of naming numbers, it has to do with the scale that you use. There is a long scale and a short. The long scale is used in most of Europe, the short scale in  the United States, Britain, and most English-Speaking countries, but the British made the switch from long to short relatively recently (1974), when Prime Minister Harold Wilson told parliament that in government statistics billion, henceforth, would mean 109, as is common in our usage, rather than 1012 as had been the case in Britain theretofore.

The long scale is the older of the two and was formulated by the French mathematician Nicolas Chuchet (approx. 1445-1488). The short scale was developed in the seventeenth century by  French mathematicians bent on reform and became very influential by the nineteenth. In the long scale, as shown below, actual names are attached, after the million, only to numbers that are multiple of a million (6 zeroes)—the only exception being the first in the series. The short scale has names for multiples for each thousand of millions. Here the two schemes.

Long Scale
Short Scale
No. of Zeroes
thousand billion
thousand trillion
thousand quadrillion
thousand quintillion
thousand sextillion

The long scale is using the Latin for two, three, four, etc. to designate multiplications by millions; thus a million x million is a billion, a million x million x million is a trillion, and so on. The names thus indicate how many times to multiply a million’s six zeroes to get the size of the number: billion is 2 x 6, trillion is 3 x 6 zeroes. Numbers that fall between these don’t have names of their own. The short scale advances by multiplying the previous number in the scale by 1,000. The names, in effect, indicate how far down the short scale that you are. A way to use them is to exploit the multiplicand, 1,000, with its three zeroes. We use the name to multiply 3—then add 3 to get the number of zeroes. Thus, sextillion: 6 x 3 = 18 + 3 = 21 zeroes or 1021.

The long scale is odd only because its first number after million (milliard) is only a multiple of 1,000; all others are multiples of millions. The short scale is more consistent, always advancing by three zeroes, but, unfortunately, it uses the old names from the long scale. Thus octillion, in that system, has 27 zeroes, and what exactly does that have to do with eight?