Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hellenism, Americanism

There are certainly parallels here. Hellenism is dated to the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC); but Hellenism was, above all, a cultural invasion, not an ear when one state ruled extended geographies. Alexander’s realm fell apart soon after his death as his successors created contending states of their own. The Greek culture, however, came to overlay a vast region, its ways were absorbed; its language became the tongue of the educated; science suddenly emerged (link). The realms that Alexander conquered were—at least from the Greek perspective—backward and culturally passive, moribund kingdoms and empires.

Americanism began—let’s just say—with the end of World War II. It has the same character. It is the radiation of a secular culture (what Hellenism also was), its earmarks commercialism and democracy, its chief influence indirect.

How long did Hellenism hold its sway? And if the fundamental, functional characteristics of Hellenism are the same as that of Americanism, how long will the cultural radiation of Americanism last? The dates of Hellenism are shifting. Today’s endpoint is put at 146 BC, the Battle of Corinth, when Rome in effect conquered Greece. So make that 177 years all told. This dating is anchored in viewing history as political power. Those who take a wider, cultural perspective date the end of Hellenism to Caesar’s assassination or what comes to the same thing, Cleopatra’s death (30 BC). After that time democracy in Rome was effectively extinguished. I like this somewhat longer dating because Greek culture, as a form, was alive and well in Caesar’s time. The educated still all spoke Greek. So make that 293 years all told. Three centuries. And as empire gripped Rome, Hellenism as a culture was in process of hosting, and transforming itself, by a vast, and many-headed religious movement.

If we apply these temporal durations to Americanism, what do they suggest? The 177-year duration, added to 1945, points to 2162; the 293-year duration produces 2238. In neither of those years will anyone alive today still be breathing.

All right. But some—those who dream of a return to sanity, escape from the chaos secular culture is now breeding—suggest that things, these days, are moving much faster than they did back then. Aren’t they? Well, that seems to be the case—but the cause of this seeming speed-up is the use of fossil fuels. Things will certainly return to normal when oil, gas, and even shale run out later this century. Indeed, it might be argued, that with the earth’s currently huge population, that change in energy will produce a far more rapidly evolving disaster than the mere wear-out of the potentials inherent in secular culture. And yes, that seems to be the case as well.

But even the end of this century is safely far away to bother about—never mind the twenty-second or the twenty-third. It is always well to live with a highly extended personal time-line, thousands of years back, hundreds of years ahead. But the practical consequences of such exercises are absent—except to make us look, as it were, at a dimension placed 90 degrees to time itself. A worthwhile activity on one’s own birthday.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Victory Convulsions

We noticed it first in tennis (such things start with elites)—the gradual appearance of victory convulsions. For us the first big name in tennis was Jack Kramer. He played in days when players wore long white pants. However fierce the competition, players were on their best behavior; they controlled their gestures and facial expressions—they also kept their mouths shut. No huge outcry with each serve or smash. At games’ end came a civilized handshake. Umpires never saw an ugly look—never mind having to endure tirades. It took a while before the victory convulsion came to be the routine marker of hard-won victories. Nowadays we see it so much the young easily learn it by imitation. Back in our days one had to work at it. There was the shout to practice, ideally the roar. Then the pumping of the arms—as if you intended to hit the sky with both fists balled. To that, if you could pull it off, was added a similar, repeated up-thrust of the hips, executed with the knees half-bent. Then the appropriate facial expression, which, to be effective, had to be the perfect fusion between rage and triumph. It doesn’t come naturally to all. It is rather pathetic to see some players, especially women (and the worst offenders tend to be ladies), trying to give an imitation of “nature in the raw” and utterly failing—because some still present stain of modesty prevents them doing so properly, giving it all the gusto. But perhaps I am wrong in calling it “nature in the raw.” Animals are quite incapable of it. Yesss! You have to have that something extra, that mysterious quality only humans have.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Canadian TV Olympics

Those of us who live in the Greater Detroit metro area have long had an advantage when the Olympics came. Our television locally (ordinary as well as cable), brings us the broadcasts of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Now CBC is a commercial channel; ads are a routine part of its presentations. But there has been a vast difference in Canadian versus U.S. coverage of the Olympics. Canadians also “frame” events where Canadians have a chance to win, but they don’t twist and hype events the way our broadcasters always do. Its more about the sport, less about personalities, judges, national rivalries, and, of course, the Glory.

My sole trip to Japan took place during an Olympic summer; it was long ago, and I forget the year. I watched a good deal. I don’t have Japanese; nonetheless I thought it was by far the most plain and straightforward coverage of any games I’d ever seen before. Culture colors everything. Self-effacement is (or at least was) a Japanese characteristic.

This year there is no Canadian coverage for us kibitzers on the border. And you’re not told the reason why if you just watch CBC. You are supposed to know. A little research produces the following: Back in 2007 Canada’s Bell Media and Rogers Media formed a corporation called Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium. Its network is CTV. It has been covering the games since 2010. No more CBC Sports. Now while we do get CBC here, we don’t get CTV. Therefore we are in NBC’s hands—although on cable, anyway, two different channels (NBC and MSNBC) carry programming—and different kinds. But the flavor is hyped-commercial. And because the sports might not be exciting enough, prominent events are wrapped, diced, and flavored inside a kind of story—to make us all feel more involved. CBC, however, may yet bring us future games. Rogers has opted out of CTV’s future bids on games. Bell has therefore “partnered” with CBC to bid on future games. And that partnership is likely to win future rights. In the 2014 Winter—and the 2016 Summer Games—our own Channel 99 might yet give us a valued alternative.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sail on Sweet 100

With so much heavy attention paid to butterflies this summer, it seems that plants have gotten short shrift. The thought arose yesterday when I saw the sad look of our tomato plants’ leaves and set about to water them. I started in sunshine but ended as heavy clouds rolled in and, in a short while, it rained and rained. The picture shows one of ours, a Sweet 100, known as a cherry tomato. All of our cultivars this year are of the kind known as being of “indeterminate growth,” one of three major groups. The other two are “cultivars of determinate growth” and “cultivars for special purposes.”

Indeterminate growth? It means that the plants just grow and grow, sending out new vines; they stop at last when the first frost comes. Unless you want them all over the place, intervention is necessary. Since its last “arrangement” the one I show strikes me as a kind of vegetative sculpture of a great clipper, complete with masts—and rigging supplied by New York Times and Wall Street Journal plastic covers. These can grow up to 10 feet tall; the one I’m showing is 5-1/2 feet now measured from the surface of the soil in the pot—the pot itself serving as the ship.

Determinate growth tomato plants have regularly-sized tomatoes; they’re called bush tomatoes and grow to about 4 feet in height. They die when the topmost buds turn into fruit—suggesting, alongside Richard Dawkins, that the plants just serve the fruit and the fruit just serves the genes. Sail on, Selfish Genes.

The special purpose cultivars have been developed to have dense and rather dry flesh—and these are raised by people who wish to make tomato sauce and paste. Sail on, Salsa Picante, one of our faves.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Counting: 18, 19, 20, 21, XXVII, XXX

When I was born on July 31, 1936 in Budapest, my grandfather was informed of this event by telegram in Berlin. He was attending the Games of the XI Olympiad there. As the opening ceremonies began there on August 1, I was finishing my first day of life. Today the Games of the XXX Olympiad open in London. Therefore I’ve lived through 20 different Olympics. But the games were cancelled in 1940 (to be held in Tokyo) and in 1944 (to be held in London); therefore I’ve lived through 18 actual and two virtual Olympics. The 1916 Olympics (to be held in Berlin) were also cancelled, that one because of what we later learned to call World War I. The modern games began in 1896 (Athens). As the listing just recited shows, we have actually held XXVII games, but we count XXX. Brigitte, who beat me into breathing in 1932 (the X Olympiad held in Los Angeles), has seen 21 games pass but only 19 were actually held in her life. Together we do cover the landscape pretty well. Oh. Lest I forget. In 1936 Hungary came in third in total gold medals: Germany, United States, and tiny Hungary.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Humanism: To Each His Own

I still remember vividly a dinner party at our house—about forty years ago. Among the guests was a couple the male member of which was a clergyman affiliated with one of the large liberal Protestant denominations. During the dinner conversation the term “secular humanism” just happened to slip from my mouth with a slightly acerbic intonation. I knew at once that I’d made a mistake. The clergyman erupted and—until the women joined in the sort soothing peace-making chorus that comes to them from Above—he went on in passionate tones thinking me (we did not know each other well) a raging fundamentalist.

A quite wonderful article in the American Conservative Brigitte read out loud yesterday as part of our lunch-time ritual (“Culture Without War,” by Elias Crim) spoke of Christian humanism. Later I got to thinking. I grew up in a household soaked, permeated in humanism—my Mother’s de facto philosophy. We never used the word as such. Our saints and prophets were members of the literary, musical, and artistic pantheon—ancient and recent. It was a value system strongly rooted in cultural expression. And it was humanist in this sense. It was Michelangelo who counted—not his subject matter.

The age of ideology dawned before I was born; it took off as I aged—and in consequence of that a clear, felt, lived value system came to be classified into endless branches. I was amazed to discover this morning, thanks to Wikipedia, that there exist at least thirteen different kinds of hyphenated humanisms—among them most interestingly Transhumanism and Posthumanism. Personism, although I didn’t count it, was on the list as well.

Later, when I had grown up and learned to see history—and culture—as cyclic phenomena, I also came to see that humanism is a stage in the transition of cultures from religious to secular to brutal. It is the stage when the religious has lost its grip but not as yet its aura. The aura is transferred from the transcendental to the human, but not to the human in its average but in its most elevated expressions.

Today’s sampling—with the large number of classifications into which humanism has now shattered—tells me that Brutalism is approaching by large, thundering steps. And its tiny little beady eyes still glitter with residues of the old ways, exemplified by yet another humanism on the list that I consulted: Antihumanism.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Electronic Detritus

Or things we hate (fear?) to throw away. My last post on this subject was on June 12, 2009 (link) where I reported hauling an SUV’s worth of obsolete computers to Goodwill—thus just a shade over three years ago. Now, way past schedule, I am beginning to think about clearing up the huge disorder caused in this house by the installation of central air. A little “walk about” this morning—first without and then with a camera—resulted in a new inventory of our electronic obsolescence. Herewith some annotations, going clockwise:
  • Under the red box, a Smith Corona electric typewriter. It has only sentimental value. If the power fails, it won’t work either.
  • A computer complete. Not ours. But the person who owns it (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) does not have the heart to junk it.
  • A monitor I used when I was still working. It did not get recycled in 2009 because it would not fit into the SUV already stuffed to the ceiling with other big beige objects.
  • An inkjet printer replaced with a laser printer, but, you know... You never know.
  • A Cannon copier (under the table). It’s heart is pure and its lungs still work, but you can’t get it to pick up a single sheet of paper—whether using the front or the back feeder.
  • Last, one of about six retired telephones and a keyboard that, someday, “may come in handy.”
Now concerning the third item, that massive monitor, it did come in handy just a couple of weeks ago. Brigitte’s slender monitor failed. Wrestling with it in agonies that recalled Laocoon, I got the old monitor and installed it. It worked! It took over the whole table, but it worked. I replaced the defective monitor—and learned to my delight that Staples was willing to take it. They even rang it up and gave me a slip with the credit I’d earned. The figure on that slip? $0.00. Well, you win some and you loose some. For me, getting rid of these things would be victory enough—until I would discover, three years from now, another cohort of electronic corpses hiding in our nooks and crannies.

As for that order making, I’ve made a start. Now I’ll just need about a week to recover from the shock of my walk about.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trees in Agitation

Trees in agitation shake their heads and moan.
Quite wildly now and then they groan and swoon.
Trees in agitation throw up their arms and hiss.
What anguish, sighs, what horror’s causing this?
Trees in agitation seem to tear their dress,
Eyeless Arab women pulling their hair in stress.
Trees in agitation straining branch and leaf,
They ululate and shriek their energetic grief. 
Back and forth they surge, wildly distorted forms.
What bothers them? The sky is free of storms.
Power lines behind the house echo in empathy,
More gently than the trees they move in sympathy.
It’s still down where I sit; no sign of any motion.
A high wind’s causing the arboreal commotion.

The situation yesterday morning...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stumbling Over that E

Brigitte shared an article the other day indicating that failing gait in the aging is now thought by some to be an early omen of the approach of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re both stumblers. But I also stumble over letters. A very common case is the E in Vergil; there it was again on Laudator this morning (link), immediately followed by Virgil because Borges, quoted in that post, used Virgil in the title of one of his books. So which is it? I prefer Virgil myself. It has to do with the balanced look of that name, not with historical truth. The poet was called Vergilius in his own time. The rather lame-sounding explanation I find on the Internet (but no deep search here) is that Vergilius was so abstemious sexually (or perhaps only compared to his contemporaries) that an “I” got borrowed from virgin.

No deep search, as I say. But I do have an authority on my shelves here. Robert Graves knows his Latin and the ancient times better than I would have—even if I’d lived in Augustus’ own time. So I trust his usage. To be sure, Graves was no fan of the chaste Vergilius. In his monumental The White Goddess, there is a single reference to the poet in the index. Here is what Graves has to say. The context is Latin poets.

His contemporary, Virgil, is to be read for qualities that are not poetic in the sense that they invoke the presence of the Muse. The musical and rhetorical skill, the fine-sounding periphrases, and the rolling periods, are admired by classicists, but the Aeneid is designed to dazzle and overpower, and true poets do not find it consistent with their integrity to follow Virgil’s example. They honour Catullus more, because he never seems to be calling upon them, as posterity, to applaud a demonstration of immortal genius; rather, he appeals to them as a contemporary: ‘Is this not so?’

Now, mind you, Graves could not have consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer in his time. What Google shows is that Virgil was vastly more used in Graves’ times than in mine—but is still by far the more popular usage. In my 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica, the only E found in the name is in a parenthetical Vergilius; my 1989 World Book Encyclopedia echoes the rising usage of Vergil by hooking that name to Virgil in an “or Vergil” annotation to the title. Neither encyclopedia explains the differences in spelling. My own guess is that if Vergilius had celebrated the White Goddess in his poetry—rather than worshipped the collective power of Rome—Graves would have stoutly used Vergil. He knew what he admired; and I’m certain that he knew how Vergilius was spelled.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Evidence, Standing, and Style of Presentation

More on Catastrophism. As a one-time science fiction writer—where the urge is sometimes great to produce a clean slate for a futuristic projections—the subject has always interested me. I entered this door when I discovered that geologists had varying explanations for ice ages. One of the first catastrophic figures I encountered was an obscure contemporary engineer named Chan Thomas. I learned of his theory in a news story in the Kansas City Star; I still have the clipping, now almost dark brown by long oxidation. He proposed that the crust of the earth, riding on a quasi-liquid layer, now and then slides—as someone in costume might move his mask so that, suddenly, the nose is at the top of his head. Thus the poles can move. And when they do, those portions of the earth’s crust that end up at the poles suddenly freeze over; the great masses of ice on the old poles, however, melt. This would suggest, of course, that once Michigan was in the Arctic Circle.

The theory intrigued me despite assurances that science had relegated Thomas to the Crackpot Circle. Then I learned that catastrophism had a serious lineage, of which perhaps the best know figure is George Cuvier (1769-1832). Cuvier persuaded me, waving his encouragement from the nineteenth century, that the facts of catastrophism were in the ground as it were. The cause of cataclysms eluded humanity—and Thomas, therefore, was just another figure who was trying to make sense of the quite incredible. Then Immanuel Velikovsky published his books beginning in 1950 (link to an earlier post). They are a kind of massive assembly of the evidence—together with a theory of why catastrophism has left its traces all over history and the physical world.

Now finally to my subject. The evidence is there, and the most careful write-up of it is by Cuvier. He also had standing. And the right style of presentation. Many others following him have added massively to his own evidence. Velikovsky, by contrast, had two important characteristics that went against him. He was a psychiatrist—therefore he had no standing. And he was a phenomenally good writer. All three of his books, Worlds in Collision, Earth in Upheaval, and Ages in Chaos have the gripping quality of thrillers—although the subjects would be, in most other hands, nothing of the sort.  Inspired by Velikovsky, no doubt, Chan Thomas later wrote his own book, The Adam and Eve Story: The History of Cataclysms (1966); it’s also categorized as a page turner. I’ve not read it, however, so this is hear-say.

Behind Velikovsky’s style is passion—in part aroused by the fantastic patterns his collations of published information revealed, in part by vehement opposition to his “heretical” approaches to a subject that had become sacrosanct when gradualism, based on the theories of Charles Lyell (in geology) and Charles Darwin (in biology), took hold. Cuvier and Lyell overlapped in time. Too bad, I say. This subject merits serious consideration. Cuvier’s findings have never been satisfactorily explained. The consolation is that Velikovsky offers some immensely entertaining summer reading. I’d start with Earth in Upheaval—which sticks closer to physical evidence. But if you’d rather contemplate Venus colliding with the Earth, why then it is Worlds in Collision.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Odalisque with Red Face

There is a Sufi saying that “The channel doesn’t drink.” If we take “channel” to mean “museum authorities” and the implied “water” to mean “art,” the saying applies to an amusing story I saw in today’s New York Times. Evidently museum managers don’t bother looking, never mind looking closely, at their own holdings. The story? A painting by Henri Matisse at the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas had been stolen—but the theft had not been noticed: someone had replaced it with a fake. The Museum only noticed the theft when a gallery owner in Miami notified the management that the painting, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” had been offered him for sale. Now, at last, Caracas looked at the painting hanging in its museum and, sure enough! — That was back in 2002. But how long had the fake hung there already? Huh? Dunno.

Matisse rather liked painting “Odalisque.” There is another topless painting of her, her bottom covered by a mere wraith of a skirt, which also shows that back then not all women shaved under their arms. And Matisse also painted her in red pants but wearing a blue top. Now, mind you, a picture like that—and there are lots of copies on the web for the pruriently searching—would not exactly arouse the art-critical faculties in viewers. They’d have plenty of other things to stare at. The painting has now been recovered in an FBI sting operation at last, hence the news coverage.

Papilio Polyxenes

Yesterday was a butterfly day—underlined. Discovering the name of the Monarch, with invaluable expert help from Brandon Watson, coincided with the emergence of two of six Black Swallowtail butterflies from their chrysalidae early in the morning. These creatures take several hours to become flight-ready. They spend this time sitting about, moving their wings, holding them wide open, drying them. At distant intervals they also crawl around a little and attempt small—and I mean small— little flights. It was a humid, rainy day yesterday; the drying process took extra time. Herewith selected images:

On top is the lady who emerged first. We took out the large container where she had emerged and she sort of fell, awkwardly, to the iron table outdoors. There she did some crawling about. Next, she flew to the hydrangea bush and remained there for another couple of hours before heading North. How do they know the direction in which, at this time of year, they are supposed to go?

On the bottom is Lady Number Two. The first image shows her mere minutes after emergence still clinging to the pupa from which she had struggled free. Eventually, by the same sequence of steps, she also made it to the same bush and, from there, also headed toward Canada.

Four others are still in pupa stage. One of the four is visible in the bottom left photo clinging to a stem at around 11:00 o’clock. It will take about a week more before they begin to emerge.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Danaus Plexippus

It rained yesterday off and on; the sun was not much evident. Late in the afternoon Brigitte noticed a butterfly, at rest on one of our cone flowers. We had moved that pot right next to our milkweed, and the visitor may have landed there first. Butterfly experts tell me that milkweed is the sole food for Monarch’s caterpillars. Our visitor was definitely a Lady and may have been engaged in leaving some offspring on that plant. We’ll see if that is so. Brigitte fetched me in a hurry—but by that time the visiting lady had moved a little bit further north and settled for a brief time on an azalea plant growing in our neighbor’s yard but reaching past the wire into ours. So today we bring our first photograph of a Monarch, such as it is.

The monarchs travel from Mexico to Canada and back again. It takes three generations to make the trip. The first of these wanderers (one of their names) appear in Spring. They’re most numerous in the Fall when they are headed south. Three generations suggests that they might be breeding both going and coming, so the extended visit of a lady pleases. The females are predominantly yellow, the males more reddish-orange. They belong to the Nymphalidae superfamily.

In the course of this current effort to document our visitors, I’ve discovered that it is very difficult to run down the meaning of any Latin biological name; these names are Latinized Greek, or Latin, or people’s names with Latin endings. In Greek mythology, Danaus was the son of a mythical Egyptian king—famed for having had 50 daughters; the usual gruesome thing: they were ordered to marry 50 men and to murder them on their wedding night, etc., etc.— welcome to ancient Greek modernity. But is that where the name is rooted? Are these lovely things the daughters of Danaus? Possibly. Monarchs utilize the toxins in the milkweed to discourage being eaten. — At the same time, somebody has launched the word that the name means “Sleepy transformation,” evidently pointing to the “miracle” of metamorphosis. But, here too, I am conflicted. Fledgling monarch caterpillars promptly eat their egg-shells; and if they find still unhatched brothers and sisters, they proceed to eat them too. Quite awake, actually. — Yet another source informs me that the name means “something like” “Greek horse-driver.” Many repeat this, too, on the web—and always also add “something like,” showing that they are copying. If any reader knows of an authoritative reference that supplies the meaning of these manufactured names, I’d appreciate hearing about it....

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Please Call Ahead. Don’t Just Drop In.

Steady economic growth, thus the time since World War II more or less across the globe, undergird social belief in the regularities of nature. Did the transition to a new millennium occasion a change in the mood? No sooner did year 1 get going than we had 9/11. And since then the times appear disordered, marked, not least, by a Great Recession that, while technically over, hasn’t tangibly passed yet. Is there something, ah, symbolical about the fact that the same event that toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center also chewed a big piece from the Pentagon? That pattern will be shaped by the poets of a darker future into something compact and memorable as they look back. Here’s one reason why I’d love to have a time machine: I could zip ahead and bring back the myths that have reduced our glory to some fable reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

Got me thinking of the interplay between gradualism and catastrophism (say in geology, biology). The one represents an interminable period when nothing happens and the other the horrific events that come anyway in the course of which everything goes to hell. That nature offers both is evident—and in most periods (and in most periods gradualism is in the saddle)—catastrophic theories get marginalized at best. Thus in the formation of the solar system the nebular theory rules (see this longish post here), despite the fact that at punctuated intervals evidence of catastrophe forces a temporary pause in our ability to predict everything. Herewith two events and one discovery—all within the last century.

In 1908 an asteroid hit Siberia or, more precisely put, exploded close to the earth. This is known as the Tunguska Event. It affected an area of 830 square miles—which is greater than the combined land area of Dallas and Los Angeles. In 1980 the physicist (and Nobel Prize winner) Luis W. Alvarez, working with his son Walter, identified the site of an ancient impact where some object from space with a six-mile radius hit the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and, doing so, doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This is known as the Chicxulub crater. In 1993, a comet was observed colliding with Jupiter. It was named after its discoverers, Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, the Shoemaker-Levy 9. That “9” indicates that this team had discovered nine periodic comets of which the one that plunged into Jupiter was the ninth. I remember watching this event on TV. The spot that this collision produced remained visible on the big planet’s surface for several months.

Such news are few and far between, to be sure, only noted with an edge of the attention and then forgotten again. But they signal that we live in a strange world where the regular laws—such as that recessionary drops should be followed by great uplifts of consumption—are sometimes interrupted by events that can—when they bring larger sorts of visitors to earth—change things for generations.

In these times of Gradualism, the asteroid belt that fills the space between Mars and Jupiter is said to be chunks of rocks that never actually managed to cohere enough to form a planet. But in other days astronomers once theorized that an entire planet had peacefully orbited in that region until another body had collided with it and caused it to explode. Now that would have been a right memorable event—no doubt visible even from the planet earth.

Such perspectives rise unbidden as I watch the frenzied exchanges in this election campaign.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sailing West

If you are small enough the ground on which you dwell may appear flat even if it is the surface of a sphere. We’re held captive by what we perceive. Powerful optics, a quiet ocean, and a tall ship can teach the patient observer that earth’s surface curves. The departing ship disappears before its sails do; the approaching ship shows the tips of its masts before it shows itself.

Where is this rule violated? The only and charming place that comes to mind is Middle-Earth. In that realm the dead embark in ships and sail off to the West, but as they reach the horizon the ships don’t disappear but sail on in a straight line blown by the ether’s wind. Today we drove West in the morning to bid farewell to Helen Fisher, born Helen Shepherd. Memories of Middle-Earth came to me as, during a final farewell procession, to say our last words to Helen, a young woman played “Danny Boy” on bagpipes. She sailed West—and the sky caught her as the horizon sank. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Increasing that Percentage

Andrew Rickard in his eponymous blog tells the story of a Roman official called Similis who’d served Emperor Hadrian (76-138) (link). Similis retired at 69 and then, on his tombstone, announced that he had been in the world many years but had only lived seven. Having died at 76, those seven in retirement amount to 9.2 percent. The actual percentage was no doubt higher. Similis should probably have put his childhood years into the “lived” category too—but never mind. This post produced quite similar reactions in me. I left my last job in a large institution and set up on my own; with that my life changed. It was then 53. Earning your living independently is not quite the same as “leaving the world,” but life’s quality changes. And then, after retirement, it changes once more. Whether such changes are for the better or worse all depends on the person’s makeup. Reading Rickard’s post, thoughts of Lyndon Johnson surfaced—a man who suffered in retirement and coped by smoking and drinking—despite a heart condition. And he evidently still tried to stay involved. He was found dead in bed, after a massive heart attack, with a telephone receiver in his hand. No telephone anywhere near my bed.

On the Menu

Claw Back
Cast Doubt
Pockets of Strength
Freezes Out
Plays Up
Cookie Crumbles
Nears Exit
Tear Down
Get ‘Haircuts’
Arms for Battle
Tax Cliff
Tune Out
Tie Hands
Bulks Up to Fight
Calls Back
Go After
Extreme Regret

Herewith words and phrases surgically removed, chopped, cut, or squeezed out of today’s headlines in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ, here, of course, is just a random sample and not in any way different from the media taken as a whole. The writing in the Journal is good. Most stories tell you the essence in a lead sentence. Admirable. The picture of the world that emerges is that of giant monsters with pea-sized brains doing battles to the death in a world that is nothing but conflict. That’s Progress. The Journal also captured my two reactions: Tune Out and Extreme Regret.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Neurotic Reinvention

The subject is fashion—in the use of words. The occasion is having encountered the word “reinventing” in four different news stories yesterday morning reading the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Detroit News. Invention, as such, played no role in any of the situations to which the word was applied. The problems all seemed to be falling sales, unattractive products, diminished brand awareness, or some other form of malady. I stumbled the other morning in the dark and badly hurt my wrist. Was that an occasion for reinventing my wrist? No. I had to do my typing more slowly—and in opening the peanut butter jar, I had to do the twisting with my left hand—which was rather flattered to be asked.

In the 1960s and 70s, as I remember, “neurotic” was a hot word. It wasn’t used in its formal sense, thus as a disease of the nervous system, which dates back to a Scottish physician, William Cullen, who first used it in 1776 (Online Etymology Dictionary). It was used to describe anxious and nervous personalities, troubled people who were annoying. Back in those days all sorts of behaviors were labeled neurotic, and the word was all over. Pondering these two, I luckily remembered Google’s Ngram viewer—which tracks word usage over time. I thought I’d submit these two words to the Ngram. Here is my result:

Well, what do you know! I was right about neurotic. It was a Himalaya in the 1960s. And reinventing, by comparison, was barely visible at that time. Indeed it has still not achieved great currency. To give that word more visibility, I ran it again, paired this time with “level playing field,” another phrase in the fashionable category. Here the results:

What we see here is the take-off of reinventing, closely linked to that of the level field. And, frankly, this pattern causes me to shudder. Looks like these two might still be rising as I depart for the, ah, Elysian Fields.

Friday, July 13, 2012

My Used Bookstore? Amazon!

One of the books I got while in college but still quite regularly read is Thomism and Modern Thought by Harry R. Klocker, S.J. It came out in 1962 and, over the years, has accumulated endless marginalia, usually written with a fountain pen.

Well, I left it outdoors the other evening. One of the worst storms hit this area and lasted for a couple of days. After the sun returned and I was taking stock out doors again—why there was my valued Thomism soaked through and through with moisture, the pages glued together, my notes, ancient and new, discoloring the pages with their run-off.

Replacing it, immediately, was my first task of that day. And I was confident in being able to do it. Sure enough. Amazon.com to the rescue. My original came from Missouri. My replacement copy arrived today. It came from a used book store in Massachusetts but, the owner informs me in a note, it originated in Maine. This book likes states beginning with the letter M. Finally in Michigan! The “new” book is as old as the “old,” but it had never been opened. Not even a pencil mark anywhere. So the pleasures of reading it yet again—and annotating the new copy—are still ahead.

This story, however, would be incomplete if I neglected to say that it is, actually, a tour de force of brilliant thought and exposition. I wonder what they use at my alma mater, Rockhurst, these days. But that would be a lot more difficult to discover than getting this sad thing replaced. The next picture gives a better image of the damage.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Richer by Helen

I am sad to report the passing of Helen Fisher yesterday, one of our own, a long-time colleague at Editorial Code and Data, Inc. In our company’s twenty-two year history, we have said good-bye to two wonderful editors, Linda Schmittroth and Helen. Helen was a genuine original, a tiny little lady with a great love of words, a ferocious researcher, a very skilled writer, and the most entertaining and funny storyteller we’ve ever known. So she got up this morning, still half asleep, and worming her arms into a dressing gown, she stumbled a little on her way to the kitchen to fix herself a cup of coffee—when she saw, my God!, a strange man lying, stark naked, sleeping on her living room couch… Thus began Helen’s tales. And they grew in the telling. People gathered around to listen to her, completely mesmerized, and laughter welled up in spontaneous gales as she proceeded. Our Helen of Joy. She died relatively young of a brain injury suffered in a fall at the hospital where she had been admitted for treatment for dehydration. Heaven is richer by Helen’s passing. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Sky Lantern Departs: In Hawaii

Even as I was celebrating the arrival of sky lanterns the other day, at least in Michigan, I now learn that the State of Hawaii was already in the process of causing their permanent departure. Today’s Wall Street Journal tells me that these have been outlawed there. They represent a fire hazard. Well, in a way, yes. There is a statistical probability that lanterns that go up when the fire is lit, and go down when the fire is out, might conceivably produce a fire. But the same logic ought also to have caused Hawaii, with much more logic, to ban cigarette lighters.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Vanessa Virginiensis

Our cone flowers are very popular this year. Today’s visitor, a new species for us, was an American Painted Lady. With a Latin name somewhat in contrast to its English, one wonders how long this lady intends to stay a virgin. And no, friends! Virginiensis does not mean that this species hails from Virginia. When conflicts like this arise, political correctness comes to the rescue. The butterfly is also known more demurely as American Lady. By all means, let’s have it both ways. Vanessa, by the way, is Greek for butterfly. The Latin is papilio, recognized as one of the family names under the Order that rules over both butterflies and moths, Lepidoptera.

The smaller image shows a butterfly called Small White, Pieris rapae. Pieris derives from a Greek word for Muse; the rapae points at radishes—although the favorite food of this butterfly is cabbage, and its alternate names are Cabbage Butterfly or Cabbage White. Small Whites are the most common fluttering creatures here, but this is the first time I’ve managed to take a picture of one. They definitely do not hang around. Until today, when we encountered an unusually meditative representative of this tribe, we didn’t even notice that they have small black spots. They fly too fast for that. These might become visible by clicking on the image to enlarge it; Esc then returns to the post.

Thus far this year we have had visits from three of the five superfamilies of butterflies arrayed under the order of Lepidoptera. These have been Swallowtails (Family of Papilionidae—swallowtails and birdwings), Red Admirals (Nymphalidae—brushfooted), and Small Whites (Pieridae—whites and yellows). We’ve also seen Monarchs early this year and recently a Common Buckeye (both are part of Nymphalidae); the Buckeye is a rather showy brownish butterfly. We saw one this year already, but it did not bother to land for a picture. Maybe later… The two other families are Lycaenidae (blues and coppers) and Riodinidae (metal marks, so named for metallic-looking spots on their wings). 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tazana, Tazana

I once was a young one, adventures I sought
The worlds I did travel with one single thought.
Tazana, Tazana.

A lass for I labored of kindly sweet face
For someone who’d love me and give my life grace.
Tazana, Tazana.

But all those I met they just rolled their dark eyes
And no one would answer my love-drunken sighs.
Tazana, Tazana.

Till once on a beach on a dark summer’s night
I glimpsed sweet Tazana in Niño-moon’s light.

Tazana, Tazana, mysterious maid
A bird in the tree and a nymph in the glade
The mermaid that swam away.
She swam, she swam away...

This poem, part of one of the Symphony in Ghulf Major series of novels, came to me powerfully when I read the author of Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese, wax eloquent about an Ethiopian song called “Tizita.” When Modernity goes into serious decline in a fictional future, Ghulfdom, wouldn’t you know it, moves and centers itself in Ethiopia. I did a lot of reading in writing about that country then, but Tizita escaped me. Something about that song, however, must have reached me anyway by way of the Poetic Ether many years ago. The word means memory, nostalgia, and longing...

Vanessa Atalanta

We had an afternoon visitor to our butterfly ranch—probably just checking the place out. We have two sets of lovely, healthy, and delicious cone flowers, and this butterfly, better known as Red Admiral, lingered for forty-five minutes inspecting at least half of them from very close up. This must be the migration season for this butterfly species. I saw another of its members fifty miles from here on the shore of Wolverine Lake. I was sitting on the porch and it landed on the stairs heading down to the grass—and lingered there for a long enough time for me to memorize its markings. The sad thing is that Rancho Mariposa is ill equipped to host the Red Admiral. Our cafeteria delights this species—but it likes to leave its eggs on stinging nettle; so far as I can determine we don’t have this plant on our grounds…

Friday, July 6, 2012

Our Unconditioned Fifth

Our new central air system had worked splendidly since the second of July when, on the morning of July the fifth the power failed around here. At that very moment I was engaged in composing an irreverent verse celebrating Not the confirmation that the Higgs particle was for real. Needless to say, no power, no air conditioning. After three weeks of enduring the disruption of our routines while our new system was born by A- B- C- and even D-section of our 1929 residence, the event totally demoralized me. Brigitte took it much more bravely. Detroit Edison predicted that our power would be back—and this is an estimate, said the lady on the phone—by about Sunday night at around 10:15 p.m. We suffered through the day and then decided that we’d spend those projected days of darkness, humidity, and heat with Monique and John at Wolverine lake—one of the few pockets in this metro area that had been spared. At last we got going around 4 in the afternoon and drove off with all of our most vital perishables iced in coolers—and with our six caterpillars nicely boxed. Could we leave them behind? No. We arrived at Monique’s and John’s at about five. Ten minutes later our neighbor, Lindsay, telephoned. The power was back! Yes, back. All is well. Detroit Edison had beat its own estimate by three days!

Now the Fifth of July was a rather quiet day for me. I felt a deep guilt for this blackout. It happened to us, I believe, because I was irreverent to the God-particle. However briefly, it actually absented itself from our electric current, teaching us a lesson about Particulus absconditus—and what that feels like. When it had chased me from my computer, finally, it relented and returned. And all was well again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Higgs' Digs

The boys—and surely also ladies—
Who run the tunnels hot as Hades
In Switzerland, a place called CERN,
Where Hadron rules and people learn
Just how matter’s put together
Has mass or is as light as feather—
The girls, I say, but most are boys,
And big colliders are their toys,
Were celebrating Peter Higgs
At their accelerated digs,
The man whose boson or whose field
They hoped, still hope, will someday yield
The necessary gravity,
Lest world becomes a cavity
Where only light-speed particles
Fly by like cyber articles;
Where things do not cohere, for mass
Is gone, was never there; and gas,
That thinnest of all stuff we know,
Would not exists. And that is so
Because if Higgs were absent from
This sphere, we cannot go or come.
There would be too much symmetry.
There wouldn’t be a galaxy.
Thank heaven therefore for the Higgs.
It surely saves our humble digs.

The Sky Lantern Arrives

We saw a mere handful of sky lanterns for the first time at Wolverine Lake’s annual Tiki Night festival in 2011. This year we saw at least forty of them gracefully wandering the sky, heading generally northward. Obviously they’d come of age in the United States. But, turns out, they are very ancient.

The first illustration shows one from the perfect angle to see how it is made. The image comes from Wikipedia (link) and shows the lantern as it is released at the Yi Peng festival near Chaing Mai in Thailand. “Yi Peng” translates as “second month” and is a big festival in Thailand. Note that the sky is filled with lanterns at all distances. Michigan hasn’t arrived at this sort of density yet…

The second illustration shows a lantern you can purchase for $4.99—or 10 for $39.99. These are the lanterns we saw on the 3rd of July. My source here is ThinkGeek (link).

The Chinese use waxed rice paper and bamboo to form the balloon. The modern kind uses plastic.

The sky lantern is a Chinese invention dating—all depending on the source you use—to either the third century of our era or to the third century BC. In both cases they were used as military signaling devices. The inventor of our time was the military strategist Zhuge Liang Kongmin, the last name being an honorific. They were called Kongming Lanterns. The earlier appearance of the lantern, according to a western historian of science, Joseph Needham, came in the period of the Warring States in China; those were also used for signaling. My source here is Wikipedia at the link above.

We found these lanterns a charming new addition to the festive skies of our own Fourth of July. They are silent, slow, move in various directions depending on the movement of the air at various elevations. When you have nine, ten in the sky at the same time, they form temporary constallations—and these, unlike the fixed ones, keep changing.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tiki Night 2012

The photography failed me, but our Luck once more triumphed. This was the thirteenth repetition of Tiki Night at Wolverine Lake, MI. Last year I noted that we had never once been rained out. This morning we rose to the sounds of a thunderstorm. In fact I’d left a clipboard full of notes and my coffee cup out overnight, and my first act of the day was to fetch both under an umbrella, but the rain came so heavily, I got wet anyway. The notes were completely obliterated—the reward of my stubborn persistence to write on paper with an ink pen. The coffee cup, made of sterner stuff, survived. Sporadically storms overflew us and bombed us with rain or hail. In the afternoon, briefly, we saw a little weak sunshine, but the clouds moved massively in again.

Host and hostess, John and Monique, told us by phone that it looked iffy, but keep our fingers crossed. We set out for the trip late in the afternoon. Sure enough, half of that one-hour trip took place with the wipers set to maximum, and Brigitte quite rightly agitated: she had the wheel but the lanes had disappeared. But then came lighter skies, lots of spray, and even a glimpse of blue in the sky.

But, as I say, we were once more lucky. By the time the sun began to set, the sky was blue, the lake festively lit with tiki flames. All manner of decorated boats cruised slowly, displaying themselves. And the fireworks, by far the most spectacular yet, again left us entranced.

I suppose it was my day-long anxiety—or the happy memory of a festive meal eaten while the children played with sparklers in anticipation of the bursts of lights—in any case my photographic skills deserted me this night. The best I could salvage I am also showing. As always, a day to treasure and remember. Around this household the actual 4th is mostly a day of recovery. The date and time stamps of this post approximate when the event took place.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Multicultural Labors

Yes, we now have some: Milkweed. More specifically, we have an Asclepias incarnata. The Latin name is much more elegant than the English; in English it’s  Swamp milkweed. As the illustration shows, the Latin is more fitting. Asclepias is elegant. In my first attempt to acquire it I was rebuffed. The lady at the store gave me “that look”—the same one I got at a computer store anciently when I walked in and asked: “Have you got a computer that comes attached to a typewriter?” I was one of those barbarians from the typewriter culture knocking on the gates of Egypt where they’d discovered mysterious machines. The lady told me, after about my third insistent question, “In all my years in this business”—and her hand swept a two-acre display of every imaginable plant—“I’ve never seen it sold.” Now I’ve left my naiveté  behind about fifty years ago. I drove off to the next place. There another lady looked at me quizzically from beneath a huge straw hat. She nodded. She led the way. “Monarchs,” she said. “You’re after Monarchs.” It was now my turn to nod. Instant intimacy. Asclepias incarnata, as she named it—and sure enough the stick-in-the-dirt label also spoke of monarch and swallowtail—gave her an idea. “I’ve got a couple of caterpillars on some fennel here,” she said, and she led me to another place. Sure enough. Fennel. The caterpillars might have been monarchs, but with emphasis on might. I bought the plants, of course. We parted amiably; she returned to her weeding tasks. On my list remained additional dill. We have three more Swallowtail infants growing, and they have to be fed. But this store’s stock was totally exhausted. I went across the street to another garden store—the smallest of the lot. I already knew the lady there. “Dill?” she said. “Disaster!” But she showed me the misery that still survived. Well! At once I saw a dill plant on its last leg—with yet another and larger caterpillar—this one most definitely a Black Swallowtail. We got to talking. “Monarchs?” she asked. “Why—you ought to get you some, let’s see, Asclepias incarnata. They love it. It starts blooming in July.”

Now its been a few days. Brigitte and I daily inspect our total population of six caterpillars. They all now seem to be spitting images of earlier Black Swallowtail larvae. But we do have Asclepias. Its flowers, when they emerge, will be a lovely pink. In due time we shall have achieved multiculturalism at Rancho Mariposa—and our population’s on the rise.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Adding a Little Ancestry

This post provides some additional ingredients to the discussion of the Melting Pot. My brother, Baldy, pointed me to a fascinating map, itself produced from 2000 Census data tabulations by the U.S. Census Bureau, published as Ancestry: 2000 and available here. Herewith the map:

Click to Enlarge, Esc to return.

A little quiet study of this graphic reveals a great deal about our so-called melting pot. For one it suggests that most people have long memories. The map was built from people’s answers to Question 10 of the 2000 Census form: “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” The question provided two 15-letter blanks. The map shows for each county the largest number reporting there, thus a plurality. In my own county, Wayne County, MI, the answer was African American.

I found it interesting that only 7.2 percent of the people reported their ancestry as American. The geographies where this category made it to the map were settled mostly by Germans, English, French, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. Are these people the genuine product of the melting pot? Probably not. That answer may have included some people who were trying to make a statement—alongside many more who didn’t think about the question, were in a hurry, or lived in families were “heritage” is not much of a subject at the dinner table…