Friday, August 31, 2012

August: Last Day But One

The Fiery Skippers played with bees
Amid the mint in our back yard.
The sun was hot, there was a breeze
And Brigitte cooked us some Swiss chard—
Those huge green leaves, red narrow veins.

As off I went to grab my keys,
I heard the name John Maynard Keynes
And then a bit about Chinese
Atrocities against free trade.
Was haircut bound, two miles away,
You know, the scissors and the blade,
Returning I bought stovetop spray
From a one-line shopping slip
And made a lib’ry visit too
To optimize the outbound trip.
That might save gas; good thing to do.

But then, as later it turned out,
When Grosse Pointe Schools let their phone ring
And therefore put us in some doubt
When aerobic swimming would begin
Come Fall, indeed next week,
The keys had to be grabbed again
To storm the school and there to speak
Directly to the guardian—
Who sat, massive, behind a screen
Behind him a black telephone
Shiny, untouched, indeed pristine,
But one he did not deign to own.
Long story short, all was still well.
I paid a hundred, signed her up.

Then back to our Grosse Pointe hotel
To tell my mate, to sip a cup,
Well-iced—before a hot walk came,
And later dinner on spaghetti.
Next to Pier Park where my own dame
Attended her last Summer swimmy.
Then came evening and its doings,
The swim-shoes in the sink to soak.
Check the e-mail, to-ing, fro-ing.
The Tigers lost, Mitt Romney spoke.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Breadless Circuses

Is there a kind of archetype of rulership? And, for that matter, what is an archetype? In practice it seems to mean what most people understand by some concept, thus a widespread meaning, understood at once and essentially in the same way—without further elaborations, nuance, and learned exceptions. Rulership? Well, whoever can say, “Off with his head!” would appear to manifest it—provided, of course, that it really happens. It means ability to accomplish at the highest collective level what the person actually intends.

The American way of government as embalmed in the constitution ignores the archetypes that float about. By contrast the American way of electing its ruler makes maximum use of the archetype—thus in effect ignoring that a presidential election is not, repeat not, the election of a ruler at all. It is the election of electors who in turn elect an executive charged with executing the laws passed by Congress. Quite a contrast. Genuine rulers—the off with his head kind—tend to elect themselves. If that’s not the way they get there, they get there on a vast swell of popular hysteria so great that riding rough-shod over flimsy pieces of paper is quite easy—and easily enforced by thugs in shirts of the same color.

Ours is a kind of corporate model, in effect. At the archetypal level. At the corporate level the board composed of ownership selects the executive who runs the company; the board can also remove the chief executive if he doesn’t deliver. The cowardice of most boards is just a fact; but it happens. The difference in our governing structure is that the power is entirely in the hands of Congress—but not the at-will removal of the executive.

But people want to keep things simple—and as I’ve remarked elsewhere before, If you keep it simple, you are stupid. Therefore, at this season, we have political circuses. The Romans insisted on more. Bread and Circuses. We only get the circuses. The bread is supposed to come from G — no! Make that the Market.

Nature Knocking on the Door

Less than a mile away from where we lived in Hopkins, Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s is St. Louis Park, a slightly more inner suburb than Hopkins of Minneapolis. Beyond those, however, came several more outer rings—enough so that we considered ourselves quite urban. Nevertheless, we happily cohabited with wildlife, in part because a Burlington Northern right-of way passes through that region, Seattle-bound, in part because it had and still has rather extensive undeveloped pieces of land. Foxes, deer. Once a deer got itself seriously entangled in the fencing of our residence—but managed to extricate itself while we were still scratching our heads and wondering how to free it.

Now, some two decades after leaving there, St. Louis Park put up some signs along a fairly new bike path. I bring a picture of one here thanks to the photography and hat tip of Patricia Bungert, a family friend. Nature is patient but persistent. Mind you, Brigitte and I believe that Minnesota will be the last bastion of civilization still standing when all else has succumbed to barbarism—but things are looking a little chancy when the Coyote is at the Door in St. Louis Park.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Great Loneliness

Just a thought. The thought is that a great loneliness hides behind the awed elevation of Apple as the greatest company—measured in market capitalization—and the doom-gloom surrounding Facebook, because the company seems unable to get Wall Street to fall in love with it. One represents “connectedness” as a physical object, the iPhone, the other the virtual locus where souls meet to commune. The ubiquity of the word “mobile” (as in, Hey, that’s what we are!) seems to me to be part of the phenomenon. We are restless roamers on the go, agitated particles, moving too fast to smell the roses. I sort of doubt that we are any more mobile than we were twenty years ago, by actual physical measurement, so this is something in the air.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Some Silk Statistics

Having just celebrated the successful raising of seven of nine caterpillars into butterflies this summer, a little perspective might be in order. Silk, that most prized of all fabrics, derives from the silkmoth, Bombyx mori. The caterpillars undergo five transformations. In the fifth of these, they cover their bodies with a dense coating of raw silk. When the larvae have developed into moths inside these silky covers, they release an enzyme that produces a hole in the silk—and incidentally also causes silk fibers to break down. For this reason, the making of silk begins before the moth is ready to emerge. The pupae are dipped into boiling water to kill them.

Each chrysalis or cocoon is formed of a single strand of silk. Yes. Not a typo. The  cocoon is about an inch in length. The thread of silk that forms it ranges in length from a fifth to more than half a mile. After the cocoons are boiled, a human must find the end of the thread by brushing the cocoon by hand. That end is then threaded into a needle affixed to a machine or a wheel. Then the unraveling begins.

Now for the statistics. It takes 3,000 to 5,000 larvae to make one pound of silk. The world produces 70 million pounds of raw silk every year—and to do so, 210 to 350 billion larvae must die so that we can dress our ladies decoratively. And we were proud to have helped seven butterflies to flutter away freely this summer. Hhmm.

To raise such large numbers of silk-covered larvae makes the white mulberry tree (Morus alba) happy; the caterpillars feed on its leaves until they go into the silk-chrysalis state. To be sure, being eaten in order to be cultivated is not necessarily an ideal sort of existence. In 2002, I learn from Wikipedia, 3,890 square miles were under white mulberry cultivation in China to support the silk trade, which is more than the areas of Delaware and Rhode Island combined or 80 percent of Connecticut’s surface.

How did I get here? We were discussing the fine threads that hold the Swallowtail chrysalides suspended from a plant stem—while the bottom is glued to the stem so well that the chrysalis gives way before the seal does. Brigitte got to talking about silk, which those suspending filaments surely are—and we realized that we knew nothing about the subject except that silk came from worms. We soon learned that these worms are caterpillars…
My image of the white silkmoth cocoons is from Offset Warehouse (link). A very instructive site on how the actual silk extraction takes places comes from (link).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Last of the Season?

This year here at Rancho Mariposa we have raised nine Black Swallowtail butterflies. Of those nine two passed away soon after shedding their chrysalis—in both cases the problem was a defective right wing. (Is Mother Nature signaling something?) The last one appeared this morning, a very healthy and very big lady. And she was really ready to head north; they always head north, until, I suppose, the migration period to the south sets in. I’d barely begun to take some photographs when she just took off.

So the raising season is over, but new visitors continue to arrive. Today I took some pictures of the Fiery Skipper. Several were taking an interest in our overflowing mint plantation. More on that subject later. Should other butterflies ask, you can tell them that the Rancho is still open, and the dining is free. The year's final report will be presented after the first frost.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Junonia Coenia

The Common Buckeye has a moth-like coloration, but it is emphatically a butterfly. It belongs to the same family as the Monarch and the Red Admiral, the Nymphalidae. The German entomologist Jacob Hübner (1761-1826) created, if that’s the word for it, the Junonia genus; it has somewhere between 30-35 species. This naming took place in 1819, and the imprecise number of species has a meaning of its own. Disputes surround the classification of some species within the group; some people put  them under Juno’s care, others under one on another closely related genus. Now 1819 is not that long ago; the situation is still fluid, as it were. And for all we know, the Lepidoptera collectively might be spawning new species yet without notifying human lepidopterists as common courtesy, one supposes, would require.

I became hooked on butterflies when writing the Ghulf Genes novels in which I had one character, who was always very lucky, discover a new species in Spain as a child—which device necessitated an entrance to the subject. I was at first intrigued and then entirely bowled over by the vast complexity. Which is both instructive and humbling. One discovers not only deep layers in nature but also unknown communities of humans laboring away—of which Jacob Hübner is one.

One aspect of that community is now rising forcefully in my awareness. Here are scientists who inherited naming conventions from the days when Latin was the English of the world; they are still at it, creating names, but absentmindedly, as it were, never bothering to record, anywhere, what those words mean in the global language of today. Junonia? The goddess Juno, no doubt, lurks between the leaves there. Coenia? I spent far too much time trying to run it down and failed. But it might have something to do with “muddy”; the closest Latin I could find was coenosus, meaning muddy or turgid or boggy. The coloration of the creature? Well, perhaps.

This post is occasioned by a visit from a Buckeye (in England also called Commodore or Pansy) yesterday. It was a little frustrating trying to get a good photo; I show two that weren’t a disaster. Then, to do some honor to this butterfly’s real patterns, I show a more happy picture I managed to take last year about this time.

The Buckeyes’ favorite food is the snapdragon; they feed on its nectar and their caterpillars eat the leaves. I took the photo I show from a site called Whole Blossoms (link). By all means purchase some at the site, and the Buckeyes will come—although, in our case, they visit to enjoy our mint and basil.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Great American Desert

The region of the country known as the Great Plains, extending in a wide band from New Mexico and Texas northward to include Montana and the Dakotas, but going on up into Canada, had a different name in the nineteenth century. People called it the Great American Desert. I show a map of the region on LaMarotte (link) in a post that briefly looks at drought conditions in 1934 and this year.

Here in Michigan, water, water, everywhere. My front lawn actually has fresh grass growing whereas, in ordinary times, it is by now a yellowish disaster. The backyard is lush. Our tomato harvest exceeds all expectations. But we have family living in the reemerging dust bowl. Such things prompted my glance back—and produced ambiguous feelings.

Two kinds of Great American Deserts. There is the physical and economic kind—and then the cultural kind. In the middle of the Great Depression, most of the agricultural regions turned to dust and produced a sizeable migration to the west and east. That era left a very deep impression on the people who passed through it—and in turn what now is labeled “the Greatest Generation.” It is very humbling to realize that genuine and collectively experienced hardship lifts humanity—whereas massive wealth, also collectively enjoyed, produces decadence, whining, deadlock, and galloping incoherence. If the tendency is upward, the collective benefits—no matter what induced that movement.

Ambiguity arises because I hear a lot of whining in the media over such matters as a sluggish GDP growth—and I do feel genuinely sympathetic to the people hurt by our Great Recession and our Little Dust Bowl—but it strikes me that a reminder, if not too harsh, that we’re actually living somewhere between the rock and the hard place, is good for the soul. Bring on the hardship, Lord. But, please! Not today.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lake Saint Clair

A river runs through it. It is a fact—and visible from its satellite image if you look closely. The Saint Clair river itself originates in, and drains, Lake Huron. After passing through the lake, it becomes the Detroit river and in due time it feeds Lake Erie to the south. In the lake itself, the river almost, but not quite, marks the border between the United States and Canada. The border parallels it but slightly to the East. Where the river is more bounded by land to the north and south, it is the border.

An excursion yesterday to the very tip of the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park had us watching huge freighters slowly, very slowly, come toward us, getting both much larger and travelling much faster. The ships use the river itself; its channel is at least 21 feet in depth; the rest of the lake, at its deepest, is around 17 feet: from the water it represents an invisible highway, but the ships’ masters follow navigational maps showing plenty of detail. The width is about 800 feet, so that the freighters can pass each other—even in the fog; but for safety then they sound their mournful horns at intervals. The lake, at its widest, is about 27 miles across.

The Iroquois called the Lake Otseketa, which (according to Susan Stevens on Facebook) meant sugar or candy; my informant also offers an alternate name, Ganatchio, meaning kettle, based on its shape. From a very high satellite view, the lake more resembles a right fist with the index finger pointing north.

The European discoverer of the lake was René Robert Cavelier.  The date was August 12, 1679. Present with the party was Father Louis Hennepin, O.F.M—who noted that that day happened to be the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi, another and most famous Franciscan. Presumably he did the naming—and also recorded (he was the expedition’s official historian) what the Iroquois called it. Our family has a kind of linkage with Father Hennepin—a man who got about. He was one of the discoverers of Niagara Falls, Lake Saint Clair, and Saint Anthony Falls now in Minneapolis. I worked for a while in Niagara Falls, we lived in Hennepin County in Minnesota, and yesterday we watched the freighters plow the sky-blue waters on Lac Sainte-Claire.

Concerning the spelling here. Saint Clare was born Chiara Offreduccio. Clare is sometimes spelled Clair or Claire. The tailing E of the original name bestowed by Hennepin got chopped, perhaps by accident, in an official mapping of the region that took place in 1755. But both Grosse and Pointe, in our town, Grosse Pointe Farms, managed to hold on to theirs. You lose some, you gain some.
Image from Google Maps but rendered non-interactively as a picture. Click to enlarge, Esc to return.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Not Surprised

The New York Times reports this morning that on-line dating services—well at least one, OkCupid—has discovered that single people meeting in bars find it easier to encounter individuals they actually like. People are perversely peculiar: they cannot be captured abstractly using questionnaires. Just yesterday I noted in a comment here that in modern times people live in an abstract world; they live suspended in thin air. Their roots don’t reach the soil of organic reality, real culture. This story was a kind of Amen to that comment. Evidently these services work by matching people with nicely-fitting “profiles”; those people then “get to know each other” by exchanging e-mails; after fairly extended periods like that, they arrange to meet for a meal or a drink. And in most cases in, like, five seconds, they know this was a bad mistake. But in a bar now—or some cookout—lo and behold. Once a spark appears, and there is a kind of drawing together—and it’s clearly visible in the sparkling of the eyes—e-mails are just fine to keep it going once it’s started. The inverse doesn’t work. The dating services, however, do provide a genuine service by arranging such physical encounters. All those people in the bar are certifiably single and searching. Odd that modern urbanized existence, where vast masses live almost shoulder to shoulder, should fail naturally to produce social encounters so that the Market must be summoned. The married mingle in various ways—block parties, children’s sports, church, and so on—but those single, or single again, in their late twenties and thirties? Much harder to do.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Berkley Square

We just finished seeing the tenth and last episode of a 1998 BBC series called Berkley Square. It follows the trials and tribulations of three nannies. We found it far more tense and gripping than any current-day spy thriller can possibly be. The reasons are the three most important facts about fiction (on the model of real estate): character, character, character. The tale ends, sort of, but enough pieces are left hanging so that not everything is properly resolved. A heavy web search does not show that this initial showing, in ten episodes, was ever followed by a continuation—although I “remember” the ultimate resolution. Now how could that be? 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Inch and the Oate

We played MyWord yesterday afternoon and Brigitte gave me inchoate as my test word. I got there, actually, but it was a struggle, in part because I didn’t really know the word, you know, up close and personally. I didn’t know how to spell it, either. I’ve heard it spoken hence when I read it I read it as in-ko-ate—and every time I do it, I always wonder what that H is doing there. The H is silent, not like in cha-cha-cha. And I’ve always understood the word, from the context, as meaning incoherent, which is close but no seegar.

Very confusing word. It should be banned. Its actual meaning is “rudimentary,” thus something  still in early stages, undeveloped. Sure enough, its origin is Latin, a variant, mind you, of incohare, a verb meaning “to begin, to hitch up.” Therefore that H got moved. The confusion comes because the word derives from in and cohum. Notice where that H is. Cohum means “the strap affixed to an oxen’s yoke.” In is used in its second sense, thus “in, into, on, upon,” not it its first Latin sense meaning “opposed to, not, against, etc.” Inchoate entered the language first. Then some people, misunderstanding what it meant—or at least what the in meant, began using choate as an adjective to mean “finished.” They thought that inchoate meant “unfinished,” therefore removing that in would produce “finished.” The Online Etymology Dictionary informs me that Oliver Wendell Holmes lamented the use of that choate in a letter in 1878, calling it barbarism in legal language. What are things coming to…

Pronunciation also varies, and Webster’s gives two versions. In what follows the emphasized syllable is italicized. in-ko-ate. in-ko-it. I’ve been pronouncing it in-ko-ate, so getting that wrong too. Satis. Basta. Done with it.

My test word for Brigitte? Solecism. Meaningful coincidence, in a way. That word means “mistake in speaking or writing.” Applies, generally, to inchoate, I’d say. I’ll stick to rudimentary.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mid-August Walk

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Cepheids of Henrietta Leavitt

There is a category of stars, known as the cepheid variables, that grow bright from a relatively dim state within a fixed period of days and then revert to a dim state in the same period—only to do it again. Their name derives from the first of these discovered, the Delta Cephei, in the Constellation of Cepheus in 1784. These suns are big—five to twenty times the size of our sun. They expand as they grow brighter, grow small again as they go dim. The following graphic, from the European Space Agency (link), illustrates the process.

The mechanism of pulsation is explained by doubly- or singly-ionized helium in the stars. Doubly means that two electrons are missing, singly that one is missing. Doubly ionized helium is more opaque. When the cepheid is dim, its outer atmosphere is high in doubly-ionized helium; it holds radiation in. As the sun heats, it expands and cools; as it cools the helium becomes less ionized and more transparent; the expanded star is bigger and brighter; more light escapes. Expansion is countered by the sun’s gravitational pull, and the process reverses.

Henrietta S. Leavitt (1868-1921) discovered an interesting relationship between these stars’ change in luminosity and the period (measured in days) it took them to go from peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough: the brighter the star, the longer the period. This news surfaced in 1912—and Leavitt appeared in my own telescope again yesterday when I was looking back to that year. Ah, yes! An interesting story. The paper in question was by the Harvard astronomer Edward Pickering (1846-1919); Leavitt worked for Pickering at Harvard with other women studying and cataloging photographic images of the sky. She turned sixty-six that year. The paper was called “Periods of 25 Variable Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud”; it was published in the Harvard College Observatory Circular and cited Leavitt’s work. Leavitt had written an earlier paper, but it was only available in the Annals of Harvard College Observatory. It was dated 1908 and titled “1777 Variables in the Magellanic Cloud.” (Image from Wikipedia here.)

The ladies who worked for Pickering did the mind-numbing “clerical” work so that their male betters could do the “serious thinking.” My own conviction, to the contrary, is that real discoveries are made when creative people study the actual raw data—whatever form they take. And Leavitt was one of these. She began to record the luminosity and periods of the cepheids—and as any awake mind will do, she began to chart them. Soon she discovered the highly predictable relationship between period and luminosity. The longer the period, the brighter the peak. Leavitt had made a very fundamental discovery—used to this day to measure stellar distances.

So how does this work? The apparent magnitude of a star is provided by its luminosity as observed from the earth. If the two variable stars have the same regular periodicity, they can be assumed to be the same size, wherever they are. As for their absolute magnitude, that all depends on how far away they are. Leavitt made the simplifying assumption that the Cepheids in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) were roughly at the same distance from us. Therefore, their absolute magnitudes could be measured as soon as the distance to the SMC became known. Thereafter, the periods of the stars alone, no matter how dim or bright they were at peak, could yield their absolute magnitude. And then, in turn, those two values (M for absolute, m for apparent) could be used to calculate the distance. And, indeed, that turned out to be true. The formula is D = 10(m-M+5)/5 .

Absolute magnitude needs a little more unpacking. It is the brightness that a stellar object would have if it were observed at a distance of 32.6 light years (10 parsecs) from the surface of the sun. The star nearest to us, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years (1.3 parsecs) from us.

The distance to the SMC was first estimated by Ejnar Hertzsprung in 1913. He used the cepheid variables in his method. His estimate, of 30,000 light years, was way off, but the method was later perfect. Now we know that the distance is 199,000 light years. The current method of calculating the absolute magnitude of a cepheid variable star is to:
  • Measure its dimmest and brightest luminosity, calculate an average, and call that apparent magnitude (m).
  • Calculate the absolute magnitude (M) from the period (P) using the following formula: M = -2.78 log(P) - 1.35. The constants used are built-in factors and adjustments necessary to indicate distance to the SMC.
  • Use the distance equation (D = 10(m-M+5)/5) to obtain the distance in parsecs.
  • Multiply that number by 3.26 to get light years. 

Henrietta Leavitt thus, a hundred years ago, gave us what are called standard candles (they flicker, sort of, after all). Using them we can measure how far away they are. The art has made great advances since. Other categories of cepheids, with much longer periods, have been discovered. Methods of measurement have greatly improved. And the art is still somewhat iffy. But it’s good enough for astronomy work.

Wither Thou Goest

Back when I was writing the Ghulf novels, it amused me to give the Martians what I called “decorous” speech—in part motivated by memories of times when formal, familiar, and vulgar speech coexisted and those capable of all three used them by conscious choice. This was quite easy to observe for a young person in Europe, especially in Germany. There regional dialects were different enough so that they had to be learned. While a boy I moved from Bavaria to Swabia; there I was sent to a boarding school—and it took me several weeks before I’d learned to talk properly with my school mates—although, to be sure, we could understand each other if both spoke High (read Radio) German. Many years later I lived in Germany again as a soldier, and I knew people whom I observed speaking formally with colleagues, familiarly with close friends, and in the regional dialect all within a ten minute period, quite spontaneously—all depending on who the other party was. I first experienced this in childhood. When some tensions arose at home, my father had a habit of assuming formal speech with my mother, to indicate displeasure, whereas he used the familiar form at other times—and my mother, quick on the uptake, answered in kind.

Douay-Rheims (1582): “Whithersoever thou shalt go, I will go: and where thou shalt dwell, I also will dwell.” Ruth 1:16.
King James (1611): “Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.”  
Revised Standard (1952):  “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.”
Jerusalem Bible (1966): “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live.”
Modern Language (1969): “Wherever you go, there I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”
New English (1970): “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay.”
Living Bible (1971)” “I want to go wherever you go, and live wherever you live.”

Herewith an illustration of an evolution from decorous to formal speech over time. My favorite is the King James, of course, although I always substitute “shall go” for “will go.” What you first hear sticks more or less. Looked at carefully, some interesting differences appear here. Withersoever is a bit of a tongue twister, made simpler in the King James, then replaced by where or wherever. Wherever is emphatic, signaling that the place could be nasty—and I would still go. Where is more neutral. We no longer lodge anywhere. We live. The New English Bible compromises and uses stay. The oldest version uses dwell, which is actually closer to live than to lodge. I am amused by the insertion of want in the most recent version cited; it suggests an aura of modernity.

Unfortunately I’m not qualified to give you lower versions. Informal might be: “Whatever. I’ll stick with you.” The pop version? “Where you hang, baby, I hang.” — I could imagine pop culture LOL at my naïveté if I could imagine that it could read.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Quick Glance Back

Even the tiny handful of people who were born a hundred years before, or even one or two years earlier, cannot remember 1912 because they would have been too little. So why do I glance back? The news these days are relentlessly centered on financial malfeasance, the economic slump, and tiny electronic appliances we hold in our hands. And, of course, the elections—but that’s a perennial. That all-purpose warding phrase occurred: This too shall pass. Then I thought I’d look. Sure enough, looking by decades, the menu changes but—say in 2002, 1992—not yet the taste and flavor. So I went back a hundred years.

1912. Taste and flavor are quite different. It was the year that the Titanic sank. If you are now a citizen of Arizona or New Mexico, those two regions became states of the Union that year. The year before there were no Girl Scouts of America. In a hard-fought contest, T. Wilding defeated A. Gore. Gore? Already campaigning back then? No. This was Wimbledon, and A. Gore was Arthur Gore. Elihu Root—whose name signaled recognition in my mind but little else—won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting international cooperation between nations through arbitration. Root failed. If a time machine could transport me to August 17, 1912, and in conversation I would refer to the two World Wars, people would give me puzzled looks. The roots of war, however, were also present—and not just the roots of the great wars but multiple small ones that still plague us: the Balkan Wars began in October. This signaled the eventual breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Serbia and Bulgaria, with secret Russian backing—and joined by Greece and Montenegro—set about to reclaim Ottoman conquests of European territory. A hundred years later, that process is still in motion.

Today brings news of banks hoping to get a special Internet domain-name category. In 1912 the Radio Act parceled out three- and four-letter station codes and restricted access to one radio frequency. The unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in the United States. My time-travelling self is also babbling on about the coming Great Depression—and getting the Cassandra treatment. No one believes my prophecies. Woodrow Wilson was still running for President, running against Roosevelt—Teddy, that is—running as a Bull Moose yet. Same old politics—but a somewhat different flavor.

My time-time travelling persona, looking forward in time from 1912, gains a quite different view of that well-worn phrase, This too shall pass. Yes, it will, this world of 1912. But what shall come in its wake? What came for that time were two of history’s greatest wars, its greatest collective economic meltdown, the Ice Age of the Cold War—which, oddly, created a period of sanity in this country—and after that, and the Berlin Wall, the perfecting hand of Progress has brought us Today. And this too shall…

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Alawis’ Turn

Troubles across the world throughout my life have served to make me aware of the details of history. There was a single exception. I learned about Korea at my boarding school in Rastatt, Germany, long before the Korean War broke out. At Konvikt Sankt Bernhard we had a reading at the beginning of our midday meal, and one of the books read out loud had been about some missionary activity in Korea; the name took root.

A rather large number of these troubles had their deeper origins in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, one of the most successful and also odd empires of humanity (1299-1919). The Osmanli clan, named after its preeminent ancestor, Osman Gazi, were herders. In Arnold Toynbee’s view, this characteristic of theirs (all cattle is useful for the herder), caused them to make stringent efforts to suppress all ethnic clashes within—although they were always at war at—their borders.


When the Great War terminated this hegemonic rule, the mingled ethnicities within that realm began to cause trouble—and do so to this day. The most recent such development is the Syrian Civil War. (Why no one actually calls it that is a great puzzlement for me.) At the root of this conflict is the rule of a minority, the Alawis, originally concentrated in the West but also present in the major cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. They are mountain people—and such tend to be independent and fractious. The An-Nusayriya mountain range runs north-south through the region shown on the inserted map (link). The Alawis representing about 12 percent of the Syrian population hold most of the power. The population of Syria is predominantly Sunni. The Alawis are a small grouping within the Twelver branch of Shi’ite Islam—but not uniformly accepted as orthodox by that, the largest, Shi’ite faith; evidently the Alawis flirt with aspects of Christianity.

Interesting, this. The Ottomans had problems with the Alawis too—not just the current Syrian majority. It strikes me as meaningful that in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the minority Sunnis in that realm (about 35% of the population) ruled a much larger Shi’ite majority. Not what you might call ideal conditions for peace—unless the ruler is an Ottoman Sultan who knows how to keep order in the highly diverse flock. Sunni and Shi’ite conflicts? No problem. To the Ottomans’ herding tradition was added a degree of religious tolerance by Mohammed himself, who taught his followers to “respect the people of the Book.”

As in ordinary life, so in religion, diversity is the rule. The Twelvers, known as the Imami, believe in twelve divinely appointed leaders (imams). The second branch of the Shia, the Ismaili, take their name from Isma’il ibn Ja’far, who was that faith’s seventh imam. They are known as the Seveners although some sects within them acknowledge a larger number. Shia simply means “follower” or “followers.”

Human nature seems unable to separate the inward striving of the soul from the outward striving for social dominance. Religious or secular ideology serves as an excellent glue for communities—which then go to war to achieve prominence. — Hey! Welcome to the valley.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Album: Adding Value

It takes about the same kind of time, creativity, and concentration to produce a decent photo album as it does to write a good-sized novella. Within the compass of a functioning family, however, the value is great, particularly in this age of the flickering and therefore evanescent image.

This came to the fore the other day when my brother, Baldy, called me with an ancestral question—and I was glad that I had spent about three months (indeed the first three months of my retirement) collating old photographs of our family into albums. The work also required very extensive research. I knew the answer to Baldy’s question, but confirming it was vital, and looking through the album—here it was! Certainty.

The image I present here holds two photos of my paternal grandmother’s sisters, of my great-grandmother, and of my oldest aunt (the child she holds). The aunt had already died when I was born, but my great-grandmother was still alive; she was the oldest member of my family I had the privilege of knowing in the flesh. The movie makers are quite right in rendering the deep past in black and white; perhaps they got that from making albums of their own. Nineteenth century images, these, except, perhaps, the last.

Everything passes, but some things take a longer time: the paper album may survive the photo blog. Albums slowly sink, like buildings, covered over by the detritus of the forever Now. But occasionally they can be dug out again—or surface, surprisingly, and create strange timeless moments.

Making albums from a scatter of very old photos is relatively easy—except for the heavy research. Making albums from current photos is relatively difficult. Some research is still required. Now was that 1979—or was that 1976? Let’s see now. The real difficulty is selection. Only the most meaningful images deserve an album, and choosing them is creative work. Hence I class album-making as a high art. I know it when I see it.

The image of Ida (upper right) bears a remarkable resemblance to our daughter, Michelle, four generations removed. Believe me: remarkable!

Myth Trumps Abstraction

It’s in the nature of a cosmic joke—namely that the Profetessa of Individualism, Ayn Rand, a lady born in the land that gave Communism its first serious incarnation, should be inspiring the Tea Party movement in America. Myth always beats abstraction, the story trumps the syllogism. Ayn Rand’s myth operated as an undercurrent here since I arrived in 1951—but not until recent times has her cult caught on lending what is known as “excitement” to a political contest.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Perseus and the Perseids

In a literal sense we live in an age of enlightenment—meaning that the lights of cities are so bright that they make the night-sky almost invisible. The sky was clear last night. We saw faint glimmers—but street lights reflecting off the high branches of trees and the general luminosity of very near Detroit diminished hopes of seeing the Perseids, meteor showers named after the sons of Perseus. Perseus? The Greeks are still with us, even looking up at the sky. He was the son of Zeus and of the mortal lady, Danaë. His name is less generally recognized than that of the monster lady that he slew, the Medusa. To look at her turned you turn to stone, but looking at her in a mirror didn’t have the same effect. Perseus, therefore, holding a bright shield Athena had given him, approached the Medusa and made an end of her. This story greatly pleased the ancient Greeks—so much so that looking at the sky they could see the outlines of his form. Here is one version of the Perseus constellation:

He is holding Medusa’s head in the crook of one arm, his sword in the other. I have this figure from Wikipedia (link).

Now once every year, peaking at around this time, the northern skies are marked by a meteor shower. They are named after Perseus’ sons because the meteors arrive as if from the direction of the constellation. They come from a cloud of rocky debris that coincides with the orbit of a periodic comet, the Swift-Tuttle (130-year period). The cloud is thought to be debris left behind by the comet at least 2000 years ago, but a new filament appears to have been added late in the nineteenth century. So now we’re in the same neighborhood again, and those lucky to live deep in the country—thus about 50+ miles from a city—will see a portion of the wealth of rock bestowed on us by the Swift-Tuttle drawing swift bright lines in the skies above.

Being unable to see much, I thought I’d compensate by learning how to find the constellation next time we are really, really out of town. The following illustration (modified from, link) will do the job.

Find the big dipper and then use its more tilted side to locate Polaris. From there, follow roughly the same angle that brought you, going down again, you will find it pointing at Perseus’ head. For legibility, I’ve turned this image so that north is toward the bottom. A little bonus in staring at these lines comes from the realization that the Big Dipper forms the chest portion of the much greater Big Bear.

One of our happier books is Skywatching, published by The Nature Company and Time Life Books, 1994. It compensates for our excessively enlightened skies. Wonderfully illustrated. And it has yet to fail me in running down meaningful explanations and illustrations in gorgeous colors, artfully fusing myth and astronomy.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Simply a Paradox

Watching the political campaigns evolve, it occurred to me that the striving for a simple message is very good in politics—whereas striving to master complexity is at the very heart of policy. Simple derives from the Latin for singular, uncompounded, unmixed (simplex). Amusingly for me, inveterate student of cultural change, the meaning of simple to mean “humble, ignorant,” later “lowly, common” developed beginning in the thirteenth century. The decline of simplicity from meaning singleness, singularity (God is simple) dates from the sixteenth century. To reach the great masses, therefore, we must keep it simple, as in “it’s the economy, stupid.” Here that “stupid” refers not to the simple but to those who see complexity. The word contains a paradox in that two meanings abide within the word; one points up as in singular, never seen before, unique; the other points down at lack of complexity. The slogan modified should be: “Keep it simple for the stupid; its all about public spending.” And if you can frame things in this way, you’ll be labeled a wonk or an intellectual—two other words well worth unpacking.

A Plethora of Greek

Soon after I became somewhat skilled in English, I began to think of that language as a Mississippi of languages—thus carrying a lot of foreign stuff. My first view of American soil came to me way off New Orleans when I arrived to these shores. At the time the ship that brought us, the USS General Muir, was still in the ocean with nothing but water visible. I’d spent the two-week trip watching the water daily—and now, suddenly, the water had turned a dull brown. I was watching the outflow of the Mshi ziibi, which is the Ojibwa way of saying big river. The poet Rumi once wrote a book titled Fihi Ma Fihi, which translates as In it What is In it, a nice way of describing the Mississippi or the English language. In it is a lot of Greek, among other things. This morning I came across the word apotropaic on Laudator (“A Mosaic Depicting Envy”)—one of those words I ought to know because I’d looked it up more than once, but the word, these days, appears infrequently enough so that I forget. It means “warding off evil,” thus the effect of a hex (the origin of that is German). Apotropaic means “to turn away, to avert,” the evil being implied. That made me think that we have a plethora of Greek in English—but that word, much used, came spontaneously—along with a little chuckle when I heard my mind saying it. That word, in turn, was dropped into the Mississippi by medical people meaning “an excess of body fluids,” in the presence of which we have an urge to pee. Now pee itself is a euphemism for “to piss,” which comes from the vulgar Latin pissiare. A plethora of Latin too. And not just in English. In Hungary, as a little boy, I learned to say pi-pi—which indicated that it was time to relieve the plethora in my little body. Body? Finally we’ve gotten to a word that originated in the Old English bodig, meaning chest or trunk.  My trustworthy source? Online Etymology Dictionary. The words in that website's name? Well, Latin, Greek, and Latin.

Pieris Rapae

This butterfly is the most common in our yard. We see several of them several times every day. They look pure white to the eyes; their movements are very rapid and even more unpredictable than those of their larger colleagues. At the same time, they almost never land and rest. I caught one feeding early in July and showed a picture of it (link). Their habit is to keep the wings closed as they eat; occasionally they flutter the wings very rapidly. Yesterday another Small White (aka Cabbage Butterfly or Cabbage White) “made itself available.” It might have had a big night and was still sort of recovering. I took the best ever pictures of it, of which I show the best one. Here the markings of the butterfly are clearly visible—as is its body and antennae. The creature probably only rests in this open manner when it is perfectly camouflaged—which happens on this aging hosta leaf. The coincidence of spots on the hosta and on the butterfly is quite remarkable. Clicking the image will enlarge it; Esc returns you to the blog.

Hostas are a great favorite around here too, so much so that once we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (“A Place for All Seasons”) just to spend half a day admiring its endless expanses of hostas, one of the most famous such plant communities in the world. Some 200 different kind live under tall, dark trees in an enchanted setting. The resting place of the Small White is a Fortunei albomarginata, also known as Silver Crown; it is one of the most common hosta varieties.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Elaboration: Part-Time Human

The phrase occurs in the last post—because it’s often on my mind. A straight-forward explanation of the phrase is that we call ourselves human when we aren’t quite there yet. The paradoxical aspects of this interest me. The context in which the phrase occurs to me is when I observe failure—to live up to the human standard, as in “you’re acting like an animal.” But that way of seeing it is paradoxical. The behaviors that I deplore (in others and in myself) are not really animal behaviors—which are in essence innocent. Our failures derive from the fact that we’re not fully human. Let me not, therefore, blame the animals. Our problems, personal and social, derive from the higher endowment that we possess but only manifest part of the time. The animals have it easier. The more we have the more is demanded in this relentlessly transitional realm.

Cheerless Corrective

Pondering the horrors in Syria as, around here, rain drops drip from our tomato plants and all is peace. We both passed through the greatest ever war humanity has fought, and although the mayhem came quite, quite near us, we managed to escape without a scratch. Yet something like Syria is always going on somewhere. Watching the dripping plants—while near me yet two more caterpillars are striving to butterfly-hood—I was reminded of a 1980s book I’d picked up in St. Paul: Peaceable Nature by Stephan Lackner. The book is at best only so-so, but it argues that nature on the whole is far, far more peaceful than would appear if we accept Tennyson’s harsh “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (from “In Memoriam,” LVI). This thought—and that mental reference to Lackner’s book—recurs at intervals. Another expression of that thought, one we often use around here, is to say how lucky we’ve been all our lives. I think it is to humanity’s credit, by and large, that we abhor violence, war, ethnic cleansing, and other evils that our status, as part-time humans, imposes. At any one time, if hard statistics were available, we would discover that overwhelming majorities of humanity are peacefully going about their days. But the mere statistical distribution of a peaceful status quo does not suffice to make us feel good when rumors of wars waft our way.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Slow-Mo Fracture

Based on copies sold, the sixteen novels that comprise the Left Behind cycle, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, represent something of a literary phenomenon at the kick-off of the twenty-first century. The series is based on interpretations of prophetic books of the Bible under which, in End Times, the faithful will undergo rapture and be instantaneously taken up to heaven. The unbelieving are…left behind. The books appeared in the period 1995-2007; seven became best sellers; total copies sold have topped 65 million. Three movies were made from this series as well, also popular. But this series, while remarked upon by the mainstream, which cannot help but admire a commercial tour de force, has been ignored because it belongs to an alien culture, so to speak.

Two recent mass killings (at a movie house showing a Batman film, at a Sikh Temple) taking place within 19 days of one another made me think that these are symptoms of cultural break-up—and curiously brought to mind the “left behind”—those individuals and groups who feel left behind in some sense of that word. Massive, rapid change always produces such individuals and groups; the KKK represented one kind of reaction to the outcome of the Civil War. And that war, in the fullness of time, also produced the last major social movement where unity, thus integration, was at the center of the great effort: the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t very long after its successful implementation that  we suddenly developed a fascination with rapidly-branching ethnicity. Soon after came multiculturalism on the left and fundamentalist activism in politics on the right. The Michigan Militia formed in 1994—and will here be a stand-in for other similar groups that have sprouted since.

LaHaye and Jenkins brilliantly turned a perception, deeply felt by many traditionalistic, religious people on its head. They were not the left behind. That label belongs to the major culture as the kingdom comes. From  my perspective all this signals the slow-motion fracture of Western Civilization. Parts of it are breaking off. Cracks appear in the denuded landscape deprived of water and burned by the merciless rays of commercialism. The mass killings are, as it were, the visible sparks that fly as this breakup is taking place.

Beggar at the Door

As a child I lived on the fringes of Europe in small towns—and I am also old enough to remember seeing beggars at the door. They didn’t appear frequently, but frequently enough so that in large households (and beggars avoided the wretched sort), giving was routine and institutionalized: food had been set aside; if no food was handy a few coins were passed into the outstretched hand. Minutes ago the telephone rang. I glanced at my watch. Just past nine a.m. The beggars on the telephone. What happens is that I say: “Yes?” and at first there is silence, then comes an echoing space with multiple voices faintly heard; a telephone bank; then comes the caller’s voice—at some delay. Today by chance I recalled my childhood. It’s the same thing—modernized. At the point where our area intersects with the Interstate, beggary in the old guise is alive as well. Usually on the off-ramp stands a man with a little cardboard sign, hand lettered: “Hungry.” Sometimes there is another man on the on-ramp too. Modern traffic lights help them stop the flow. As in my childhood, so today, the response is institutionalized. We keep a dollar bill under the visor on the driver’s side. The red light doesn’t last long enough to give you time to worm a billfold out from under, extract a bill, roll down the window, and hand it over. The telephone kind gets short shrift. “The poor will always be with you…”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Ticket Prices

A chance remark during Olympic coverage alerted me to the fact that ticket prices might be high. A little looking provided this relatively accessible link. Up to five levels of tickets are available; in many venues only four levels apply. To give two examples, here is Swimming and Hockey:


All venues may be seen at the link. Today’s conversion rate indicates that £1 = $1.57. Therefore the best price for the swimming finals is $706.50 per person. As for the opening and closing ceremonies, the Opening Ceremony (best seat) was £2,012 ($3,159), the Closing Ceremony will run £1,500 ($2,355).

Much more detail is available from another site (link), but it is rather cumbersome to use. Detailed listings reveal how ticket prices vary based on the sport’s popularity or prestige (e.g. Dressage), also that on the whole women’s sports produce a lower ticket prices than men’s.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic Notes

This blog began on 2009, but having been an almost daily preoccupation, it seems much older—so much so that I thought I’d look back to see what I had written about the last Olympics only to discover that I hadn’t written anything. Neither about the Olympics—nor yet about the last presidential contest. Surprise.

Such events—well separated in time—have a certain character. I tend to forget, except as a token, the sequence of feelings that they will produce. Hence a kind of recurrence marks them; each time they come, I think: “That’s what I thought the last time too.” I will leave the negative reactions to sleep like dogs. Yesterday came two pleasing events. One was Dressage Riding, my Father’s passionate avocation. It has retained its spirit of sportsmanship, not to say aura of aristocracy—the reason why, this year, it was subject to sneers. My Father was a genuine product of the Austro-Hungarian empire; to be sure he arrived after it had passed, but its spirit still lingered in the Hungarian military. He was highly-enough qualified so that the family expected him to make the Hungarian national team in 1940—but World War II interfered (link). His other favorite sport was Fencing. It delighted me to see the Women’s team win a bronze medal in that sport—an achievement for a team ranked fifth over all. We only saw the last match-up in which Courtney Hurley defeated the 2004 Olympic champion, Anna Sivkova of Russia, to clinch the team’s achievement. Sometimes a bronze feels like gold. Other team members were Maya Lawrence and Kelley Hurley, Courtney’s older sister.

Two further notes—extending the timeline. Such games as these are the hallmark of secular times—although the Olympics began in 776 BC—which was decisively not a secular era in Greece. But as such times set in in earnest, the spectacles become more and more, well, secular. Thus it did not surprise me that Emperor Theodosius stopped such events—or they terminated during his reign.. He was engaged in imposing Christianity on the empire, and the times were turbulent. The ancient Olympics thus lasted for 1169 years. Nor does it surprise me that the Olympics were revived beginning in 1796 in Revolutionary France before evolving to the current games by 1856. Can we read into that, using such evidence, that Christendom, as a cultural epoch, lasted from 393 to 1796—thus 1404 years? Food for contemplation in the practice of the only sport I’m still capable of: walking. But my walk has nothing to do with the Olympic kind. Practice of that would surely land me in a hospital in just 15 minutes. Time is very elastic, you might say.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Blessing, If an Odd One

Work is an odd blessing—if also, for the vast majority, a necessity. Having work is a kind of minimum. Having the right kind of work is the best of goods. Being allowed to carry it on is the highest earthly blessing. One of the curses of modernity is that work is deformed, defaced, and destroyed by its forced subdivision on the one hand and by deadlines on the other. I was reminded of this reading, this morning, that the algorithmic trading glitches that now threaten to destroy Knight Capital were due to a deadline imposed on Knight’s programmers. They had to let go of the program before it was fully tested. I know what they were up against. I expect that most people will find this odd, but computer programming is an all-demanding activity: intellect, intuition, emotions, smell, taste, touch are all involved—and you just know when you are—and when you are not yet—finished.

Never having time enough to do the job right! When I joined Midwest Research Institute, the first thing I saw during my initial interview was a sign hung up in my future’s boss’s office: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” At my own company, Editorial Code and Data, time and time again, having accomplished what seemed impossible—and having delivered it on time—in the aftermath of delivery we used to muse and say. “Well, now we know how to do this job right—if we ever had a chance to do it again.” But we rarely ever did. Most new jobs required a mass of inventions and discoveries—accomplished against deadlines.

Paradox. In an another world, where work will not be needed—and hence will not be suffocated by greed and by anxiety—it will be possible to do work as it must be done. Paradox. The greatest economic miracle in human history has been accomplished by draining work of its meaning.

Well, fight, fight, fight. It takes a great deal of extra effort to resist this tendency and do jobs the way they are supposed to be done. It always means getting less for the work than it deserves. The work-arounds have produced the insanities of the assembly line and ridiculous specialization. A final paradox: all this automation and efficiency has produced a situation where fewer and fewer people are needed, and hence the minimum needed by people, to have any work at all, never mind the proper kind, is itself under attack.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Aesop's Progress

A telling proof that the idea of progress is at best ambiguous is the fact that Aesop’s fables retain their currency today. If such a figure ever lived, he lived between 620 and 564 BC, thus in “pre-modern” Greece. My illustration, taken from a 1489 book cover and from Wikipedia (link), shows that his stories were also popular in “pre-modern” Europe. In this image Aesop is shown as a hunchback; the legends reaching us makes him a very ugly slave who amused his betters with stories that, presumably, they laughed at and ignored; we know them in the aggregate and Aesop by his name. The illustration also shows that some things remain the same: five toes and five fingers; and look at those intelligent eyes. The images are taken from his stories, and at about 9:05 on the clock is the image of the grasshopper (from the Grasshopper and the Ant), which floated into my mind today as I contemplated the power-outages in India. Neglect of maintenance—while grooving on outsourced wealth from America?

Progress is real enough—but manifests as individual achievement. But however great or minor, it too ends as the body marches on, eating the years. Progressive periods? Yes. When by some happy chance and virtuous cooperation humanity for a while pulls together—usually illuminated by some genuine inspiration—progress is real but something in us tempts us to believe that it will be permanent—even when we pull apart. Therefore nothing lasts. Yin and Yang wax and vane.

I wrote a brief riff on the power-outages on LaMarotte—which then reminded me of sounding, perhaps, like Chicken Little. That tale has no known author beyond Folklore—but is structured so that it reveals the presence of a very bright mind. That’s another perennial. The wisdom keeps bubbling up, whether named or nameless. The state of man remains what it was and always is. We always live in the Age of Iron—while dreaming of an Age of Gold.