Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Flavor of the Month

The flavor of this month was Turbulence. It is the Bahais who teach, I think, that cultural heterogeneity is no barrier to spiritual coherence—but cultural upheaval, I imagine, one source of turbulence this month, therefore calls for special vigilance. My concentration failed me here and there, therefore that labeling. Debates and torrents of ugly ads and innuendoes at the social level, the highs of victory followed by the depths of defeat in baseball (for us), and Hurricane Sandy’s visit of the East Coast on the planetary plane; her winds reached even into Michigan. But at the very bottom, where we lived, order prevailed. A slurry of medical days came and went, all with wished-for results. And we ended the month with our traditional pumpkin-carving gathering at Wolverine Lake. Of the ten we carved that night, I select the one that best captures the family feelings as we gathered—carved by October’s birthday child, Monique.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spring Tide, Neap Tide

Almost as if the media had just discovered that there are such a things as tides, every third report on Hurricane Sandy yesterday had some person knee-deep in water reporting that things are a lot worse because it is now Full Moon. So how much of a difference does that make?

Well, first of all, the difference would be the same even if Sandy had arrived at a period of New Moon. In both cases, Sun-earth-moon, or Sun-moon-earth are aligned. This means that the gravitational pull of both the moon and the sun are acting on the ocean directly from the same angle. By night the moon, by day the sun, pulls the water toward itself, and the tides are then higher, the ebbs lower. This is known as “spring tide” because the waters sort of leap higher in the direction of these bodies relative to the earth.

Conversely, at neap tides, when the moon is in its quarter phases and at 90° to the sun as seen from the earth, the magnetic pull of the sun and moon are opposed, hence the tides are lower. But by how much? Enough to justify the media in underlining that difference in its reportage?

Well, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (once quite near where we used to spend weekends by the seashore when we lived in Virginia) was much in the news yesterday. So, with the help of the Old Farmers Almanac (link), I looked up the higher of two daily tides for October 22 (first quarter, a neap tide day) and October 30 (full moon, spring tide day):

The Higher of Two Daily Tides at Rehoboth Beach, DE (in feet)
Moon Phase
October 22, 2012
First Quarter
October 30, 2012
Neap and spring tide difference this month:

Well, there is a difference of 6.24 inches. In my case that reaches to just above my ankles. But the fullness of the moon is a rather indirect way of signaling a rise in the sea level by six inches for about a minute or so.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Mystery of Mo

Sweeping the New York Yankees had a negative effect on our admired Detroit Tigers, whereas winning the league championship series in the seventh game had the opposite effect on the San Francisco Giants. The sweepers got swept. It was painful to watch. The process inevitably reminded me how little we know about those familiar small collectives—sports teams, theatrical companies, orchestras, and other relatively compact but complexly-related social organisms. They have mysterious ways of shining with light or sinking into pits of gloom. Humanity always knows how to name things—but naming is not knowing. Momentum we call it. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. It seems to be a kind of emotional communication—and for all I know it might be something paranormal, meaning that something is really there, probably at the biological level; something exist even if it can’t be measured. When in a series Mo suddenly appears, sometimes conspicuously, like by its absence, we’re no longer watching baseball but something more mysterious; for enjoyment, for excitement we must have Mo vs. Mo. The division and league championships were baseball this year, the World Series something else. Mo came and spoiled it for us here. The Giants moved up in the rankings to 4th place among all-time World Series winners (tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers); that sort of move doesn’t happen every year. I’ve updated last year’s chart for the record (link).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Butterfly as Muse

The season is in dormancy. Two pupae from last season wait in a glass outdoors—to help them feel the cold, under whose influence their tiny hidden bodies will generate a kind of antifreeze; they dream of Spring. But, despite that, the Spirit of the Butterfly is present still. I found a note from Brigitte this morning with a poem by Brandon Watson inspired by the Butterfly as Muse. We’re grateful. Brigitte’s note said: “How utterly wonderful! Thank you, Brandon!” I join her. Pure delight (link).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Now on to Renascence

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) passed on yesterday. I first chanced across one of his books in the early 1960s (The House of Intellect) and felt a resonance. Later I read at least one other, perhaps more, of his forty-plus books, among them certainly Science: The Glorious Entertainment. Then, for me, came a hiatus—followed by a surprise. The surprise was From Dawn to Decadence, undoubtedly Barzun’s major work. It came out of the blue as a gift from Brigitte in the year of its publication, 2000. We read selected parts of the massive tome together on weekends. There are these circles, of course, of invisible friends, and he was one of ours. In that book Barzun highlights “notable figures” in each period of his 500-year history (1500-2000), and we discovered that Dorothy Sayers was one of these—which simply confirms the existence of such circles (link). Barzun has moved on. Had he lived another month, he would have been 105. It must have been quite a trial to live that long—but now, finally, it’s over.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

AC B's P

To spell it out, our closest solar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, has three suns. Of these Alpha Centauri A is the biggest; it is about 10 percent more massive and 52 percent more luminous than our sun. It is about 4.4 light years from our sun. Alpha Centauri B is nearly as big as our sun (90.7%) but significantly less luminous (44.5% of the sun). This post is here because quite recently a Swiss astronomical team, headed by Xavier Dumusque, at the Geneva Observatory, discovered an earth-size planet orbiting a Cen B (to use a naming convention from astronomy). They published their findings in Nature on October 17 of this year. A and B are quite close to each other—the nearest distance between them is 900 million miles. The third sun that forms this system, known as Proxima Centauri, is the smallest (about 12.5% of the sun) and circles the AB twins at a trillion-mile distance. For that reason, periodically, it is the closest to the earth.

Our interest, of course, is in that unnamed planet, the P of my title. The current scientific consensus is that planets must be circling distant suns. One might say obviously. Seen in the frame of science, we are just a random sample, and if our sun has planets, others must have them too. But science is cautious, and rightly so. For decades, though, a search has been underway; in the course of it several gigantic, Jupiter-sized bodies have been discovered. a Cen B’s P, not named thus far, is the first of the right size. Alas, it orbits B at a distance much closer than Mercury circles our sun. For this reason the size is right but nothing else is. If there is life there, it has to take the form of fire demons.

Somewhere, surely, as probabilities dictate, there must be a planet of earth’s size and density, at the right distance from its sun, one neither too hot nor too dim to support life, with the same endowments of gas and water as ours, in existence just the right amount of time—to produce life spontaneously. And then, life once given, inevitably (given time and happy accidents enough), intelligent life will have evolved.

That is why we are interested in P.

Much food for thought. As this most recent addition to our knowledge shows, the improbability of life is a good deal higher than its inevitability. But there are those billions of galaxies filled with billions of stars. So, surely… Here and there, I assume, there are contrarian views. And vive la différence. Something even more improbable may be life’s explanation than all that we can possibly discover by microscopes and telescopes.

I show the same graphic, an artist’s rendition, everybody else does, courtesy of Wikipedia (link); that crescent on the right is P; B looks much bigger than A, but that is due to perspective. And my hat tip, and thanks, go to John Magee of eagle eyes and bottomless energy. He pointed me to this phenomenon and—amusingly—on a day when the Tigers were still struggling and the spin on the debates still raged. The subject of his e-mail? “The actual big news yesterday…”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

From Here to Timbuktu

In the context of ancient empires overrun by colonial conquest—and in context of breaking news, as it were—it may be instructive to contemplate the history of Mali, a landlocked country in north-western Africa. It was once an empire too (1230-1600) and once reached the Atlantic; back then what is now Senegal and part of Mauritania were part of it. It was, of course, also created by conquest—but lived by the Trans-Sahara trade (to and from Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunis, Europe, and Morocco). The empire’s main centers, among them Timbuktu, now a regional Mali capital, were terminal or starting points of this trade.

I note that Mali’s coat of arms bears the words Un peuple, un but, une foi. Those words point back to the early days of the nineteenth century when France began to conquer Senegal and eventually what is Mali now. One people? You wish, one might say. One goal? The answer there is domination over the mineral wealth, gold. One faith? Well, the faith is Islam. Ninety percent of the people are Muslims, 5 percent Christian; and 5 percent still tenaciously cling to the really old-time religions of still undiscovered and unconquered Africa.

What is now proceeding in that region is, in fact, a conflict within the Muslim community, on the one hand. On the other it is a return to traditional ways and the shedding of the alien garments of democratic government imposed by France. Our own still active genius is to form good advertising slogans. Therefore, our elites speak of islamofascism to infuse us with shivering dread.

It’s a long ways from here to Timbuktu—as a trader, staring at his lines of camels setting forth from Egypt, might have said. But here we also see a latter-day parallel to the conquest of Aztec and Inca empires by the first colonists. I noted, a while back, that the one thing always on Columbus’ mind, after making landfall, was gold (link).

Ancient South American Cultures

Back in grade school in Bavaria, when studying geography, our teacher asked us to draw maps using colored pencils. In consequence we learned our geography—and for most of us, I think, going by Brigitte’s and my memories, delighted in such homework. Today I engaged in such a task again—having learned how to learn. I didn’t draw the maps but I colored them, all in an effort to sort out the three largest by-gone South American cultures, the Mayans, Incas, and the Aztecs.

But why would I bother? Well, this is a forward-looking venture. We’re approaching an important date, December 21, 2012. On that day, supposedly, according to the long-count Mayan calendar, a Great Age will come to an end. That projection, in its turn, has induced scores of people to predict a Great Change on that day, call it Doomsday, End Times, Apocalypse, what have you—possibly the collision with an alien celestial body! And I plan to make a posting on that day here on Ghulf Genes—provided, of course, that Doomsday is delayed. But to say anything meaningful about that event, I thought it wise, minimally, to know where the Mayans actually lived—and, surprise, I didn’t have the foggiest. Unless you are yourself extraordinarily learned, with fantastic memory, you’ll know the feeling: faint images of pyramids, strange stonework, very high mountains. But was that the Mayans? The Aztecs? The Incas? Let’s sort it out. I’ll do that today in terms of space and time.

Above you see an image of Middle and South America, the virtue of which lies in suggesting that Mexico is shaped like a whale; to the right of that I’ve colored in, if only approximately, the regions where the Aztecs, Mayans, and the Incas once flourished. Now I had the Mayan’s location, in the whale’s right flipper, where, going roughly clock-wise from 9:00 o'clock, we find today the cities of Campeche, Merida (the largest, 11:00), Cancun (2:00), and Chetuma (4:30). Not a region of great extent. The Aztecs dominated a region to the east and north. And the Incas had the West Coast of today’s South American continent all to themselves.

Now let us fix the time dimension:

  • Mayans. They came first; scholars put their beginnings into very ancient times, 2000 BC. We are, of course, not talking about civilizations yet—unless the Mayans had more than one. The classical period of the one we know, thus analogous to the Greek classical period, extended from 250 to 900 AD. Thereafter the Mayan culture entered its “post-modern period,” meaning that its coherence, cultural and political unity shattered.
  • Incas. They came next. They are dated from roughly 900 AD, but their expansion, and therefore the Inca empire, is dated to 1438; it ended in 1533 by conquest from Europe. The empire spread to the Atlantic from Cuzco (the current Cusco in Peru, thus roughly halfway in the illustration), spreading north, south, and west. This civilization had a very sophisticated numerical record-keeping system, using knotted string, but no writing.
  • The Aztecs. They were last to get going. Their beginnings are put around 1300 AD; their period of empire, centered on Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, began in 1427 and lasted until 1519. They too succumbed to the conquistadores.

Enough for a start. But there will be other posts as, driven by the clock, we approach the End. But the impatient among you might wish to look at this quite superb and short slide-show (link), produced by Angie Matheny. It has multiple virtues, among them a comprehensive summary, vivid images, and some information that might come as a surprise.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Thann longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
  [Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: Prologue]

The image I show was taken on September 16—yes, of 2012. It comes from one of our ancestral cradles, one yet to be documented on Ghulf Genes; it is Sümeg, in Hungary, where the paternal side of my family had its seat for many generations. The occasion of this pilgrimage was the September 15 celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows. The picture was part of the lead story in Sümeg és Vidéke (Sümeg and its Region), a monthly. The story was titled “Prayer and song on pilgrimage,” and subtitled “Faith unites a community, strengthen the soul, points the way.” We’ve strayed a long ways from our roots, of course. Such a story, on the front page, is quite unthinkable in Grosse Pointe News (a weekly) or Grosse Pointe Magazine (a slick bimonthly).

I got a copy of Sümeg és Vidéke in the modern way, as a PDF delivered by e-mail, from my brother, Baldy, who visited there recently. He and my cousin, Tibor, who is a Canadian these days, visited Sümeg during a recent vacation, and while there, also spent some time in the Darnay Múzeum. It was founded by a great-uncle of ours, Kálmán, and later named after him. It is filled with historical and literary materials, portraits,  and collections of the emerging technology of its time, the late nineteenth century, including weaponry. Baldy and Tibor had their picture taken there, flanking the statue of Kálmán—and the magazine also included that visit as one of its stories in this issue.

The strong impression produced in me, looking at these stories, but particularly the story of that here-and-now pilgrimage reaching Sümeg from the region but also including large numbers of foreigners, is the deep layering of culture. There is a fundamental grounding present in all culture; it may change but never really disappears. And where modern culture thins out somewhat, thus in so-called backward regions, traditional culture is still green and full of bloom and moisture. It is, like nature, tenacious and persistent. It is not only alive but thriving in another of our cradles, Tirschenreuth in Northern Bavaria—indeed in that region generally; Pope Benedict XVI hails from the Altötting region, Southern Bavaria; and, of course, one can find living patches of it all over Europe. (In the image, Baldy, Kálmán, and Tibor.)

At the same time, wouldn’t you know it, there are also ads. One, offered by the Mobil Bazár, made me smile. Here you can buy Mobiltelefonokat (használt és új), Headset-eket, Laminálast, and more— respectively mobile phones (used and new), headsets, and lamination services. Other ads, however, sell pre-chopped heating-wood in gigantic crates, heavy construction equipment, socks, and car services featuring automated auto-diagnosis, among many others. Life, in other words, goes on—on many levels.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fastest Editor in Longest Race

In resplendent October weather yesterday several thousand people of all ages took part in the Detroit Marathon. I don’t know how many started, but 3,749 finished, among them our own redoubtable Robert Lazich. He came in 610th—and this his first ever marathon! Bob was a little disappointed—but his time was 3 hours and 50 minutes, which tells me that he ran 26.2 miles, each mile in 8:46 minutes. All of us at ECDI are more breathless in surprise than Bob was crossing the finish line! Monique was there to witness and contributed the pictures. Wonderful.

The marathon is sponsored by the Detroit Free Press and Talmer Bank. ECDI stands for Editorial Code and Data, Inc., where Bob works—and if I told you how many years he has been active there, you would be even more amazed that he finished so high in the standings. As for “redoubtable,” that word does tempt me to explain it. But the word to parse today is Congratulations! We’re all very proud of you, Bob!

Oh, yes. Bob is not shown anywhere. Monique arrived after Bob had passed. He was too swift for us!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Progressive Delusions

Nearly a year has passed since I last mentioned George F. Kennan on Ghulf Genes, so it is time again. We have no scientific evidence for this, but as Wikipedia informs me, “Native Americans in the United States have historically had extreme difficulty with the use of alcohol.” Similarly I have no scientific evidence for asserting that “The late Western Civilization has had an extreme tendency to succumb to progressive delusions.” Both may be true. The late but long-lived George Kennan (1904-2005) had discovered an inoculant to prevent the onset of that disease: realism. Hence I hope that he will be remembered.

This came to mind as we settled down to read The American Conservative yesterday. We always read it together, meaning that Brigitte reads, I listen, and then we both talk. The article in question was a review by Leon Hadar of a book by Charles A. Kupchan of Oxford University titled: “No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn” (October 2012 issue). We were delighted. The spirit of rationalism, realism remains alive.

The other day I offered the opinion that technology progresses but humanity cycles. The progressive delusions syndrome (PDS) is the mistaken belief that humanity also progresses and that, in the West, the two-beat events of the American and of the French Revolutions inaugurated the new age with a ta-Dah! The theme, of course, had been sounded earlier in the 1215 Magna Carta and smaller echoes of the same. But it took the eighteenth century to offer us the quartet of Enlightenment, Secularism, Democracy, and Capitalism. The syndrome consists in believing that these Four Horsemen will inevitably conquer the world.

Outbreaks of PDS marked our invasion of Iraq. At last, we thought, we would establish a beachhead of democracy where all of the oil is. The impossible conquest of Afghanistan (has been done before but never successfully) arose from pure faith, an ardent desire to bring light to mountainous darkness—although, of course, the ghost of a great pipeline glimmers in that darkness as well.

The most recent outbreak accompanied the Arab Spring. I hastened to register a cautious disagreement then. Somehow I do not believe that Twitter will conquer the world or that “the Spirit of Progress moved upon the Facebook of the waters” then. That drama is still “under construction,” as it were, but the forms emerging, most recently in Egypt and in Libya, are not easily recognized as marketable offspring of Progress.

So let us by all means reread George Kennan and, fortified, prepare to battle the horsemen we’ve created. Nor should we fantasize that China, which looks back to 2100 BC to see its first dynasty, the Xia, will gladly embrace what we produced circa 1800 AD. In that spirit I note that it might be time to do some raking—as soon as the rain stops to fall.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Eurocrisis

The Wochen-Post, a German-language American paper (thanks, Sybil, for sharing that paper with us), brings the story of a horse that entered a gas station’s little shop near Regensburg, in Bavaria. How it got there nobody knows. It entered, stood there, and looked at the merchandise. Then it just turned and left again. “Seems like it couldn’t find anything sensible to buy,” said a policeman involved in the “client’s” recapture. The owner of a nearby stud showed up to take the bored shopper home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

This Felt Better

The Detroit News headline was DOMINATION. I understand the sentiment, but thought it premature. We ought always to live with an extended timeline, and it isn’t over yet. Yes, yes. Miraculously, you might say, the Detroit Tigers not only won the American League Championship Series but swept the Yankees.  And that felt better than last year’s division championships in which the Tigers had also prevailed (link). But now what looms ahead is a contest with the second-ranking St. Louis Cardinals. Vivid are my memories of the last game of that contest in 2006 when our Tigers nobly lost the World Series to the Red Birds. So let’s not shout domination and such things yet. Let us await what fate has in store. The Cardinal’s are now 3:1 against the Giants. The improbable might still happen. If it does, and the Giants somehow reverse that picture, my imagery of this year’s contest may yet become reality: the Tigers facing exhausted Giants in San Francisco…

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Migration Begins

In fact it began some days ago but is still not entirely over. I show a part—sigh, only a part—of our vast collection of jade plants (formally Crassula ovata). They are all descendants of a single one! They’re getting a little extra light this year from the silvery reflections of the newly installed air-conditioning ducts. The biggest of these, the ancestress of all the rest, is still outdoors and will come in when the sun room has been sorted. The plants you see will enrich my personal environment, the computer station from which this picture was taken and whence all of these posts originate. Nice to have company again—for about six months.

Is it just us? The cold weather seems earlier than usual. Last year “the plants came in” on November 11…

Plants will soon be everywhere indoors, all windows having ample sunlight crowded with worshipers—all the way up to the half-landing to the attic, the place where our geraniums do their wintering and, seemingly much refreshed by the almost freezing temperatures up there, burst into vivid bloom.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Raise to the Lintel

Call it sublimation—whatever that word actually means.
     [Plucked from a diary entry of mine.]

Post-and-lintel a ways back...
One of the best proofs that we are very strange creatures indeed is that we use words like sublimation and know exactly what we mean. That in turns means to have a real grasp of the process described, but the description of it in any kind of effective detail is difficult, slippery. It involves an inner movement of the soul, indeed a quite complex series of such movements, sustained over some period of time; both the “experience” sublimated and what happens to it after that process must, of course, be retained in memory. But to signal that nexus of perceptions and actions, we must have recourse to physical shorthand. My title betrays what sublimate actually means: it means to raise something to the lintel. So what does that mean?

Well, let’s go to work by using a contrast. Submerge means to dip something under the surface of a body of water. In submerge we encounter, as in sublimate, the prefix sub-. That Latin form has multiple meanings. It means “under,” the function used in submerge; but it also means “close to, up to, towards, and up from below” of which “up to” plays the functional role in sublimate—but with “move X” simply understood. Surface? Here we encounter the French slurring of the Latin super-, one of the meanings of which is “on top of”; therefore on top of the face. The water has a “face”? Only to very strange creatures like we are. In the paragraph above I use the word sustain. Here, by contrast, the French slurs sub- into sus-, using the meaning of “up from below.” The verb tener means “to hold.”

Curious how the human mind sovereignly uses concepts employing the same basic symbol, this way, that way. Sub- now means up, now under. So which is it? No problem. Just leave it to that in finitely malleable human intelligence.

Lintel is another of those wonderfully fluid concepts useable in different ways. It comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, but the word is related to limes, meaning boundary or border. It is, at the same time, the upper limit of the opening, thus its border; at the same time it is the member that lies under the structure above it, thus is a weight-bearing member.

The threshold or boundary toward which we move something when engaged in sublimation is, of course, the edge or border of the material sphere. The movement is toward the transcendental. Getting to that limit is hard enough; passing it, of course, would be sublime.
Image source is Wikipedia (link).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Dragon in Question

Yet another PBS TV show yesterday, combining cartoons and documentary footage, aimed at educating children about that awesome creature, the male lion, set me musing—about dragons. The lion, the dragon, and the eagle are probably the most-used images in heraldry; if we wink knowingly at double-headed eagles and lions, accepting them as products of artistic license, we have two animals still alive and well today, but what about that dragon? One can also extend the list. All manner of other actual animals also play a role; among the carnivorous the wolf and bear play respectable roles. Among the vegetarians, the horse leads, I think, but there are also bulls, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats as well. Among the more imaginative are fused animals, thus camel-body-donkey’s head. As we advance in time, sure enough we find both elephant and whale. Yes, yes. But what about the dragon? What are the roots of that creature in human memory? Or is it—and its fiery breath—entirely the product of imagination?

The current consensus appears to assert that—and for a reason. The reason is that the last reasonable physical prototype of a dragon, some gigantic carnivorous dinosaur, disappeared 65 million years ago roughly, while humans anatomically like ourselves appeared a mere 200,000 years ago. Conclusion: no human was actually threatened by a dinosaur, got eaten by one, or escaped being eaten after a close encounter with that fiery breath. It amuses me to read the following sentence in Wikipedia’s article on Dragon (link): “Some creationists believe that dragons of mythology were actually dinosaurs, and that they died out with other creatures around the end of the ice age.” Such a characterization, to be sure, is the ultimate dismissal of the possibility; creationists, so-called, appear to compress the past drastically. Based on Biblical studies, they think creation took place roughly 6,000 years ago.

But there are many ways to skin the cat. My own gut feel is that the great symbols of humanity are always rooted in real experience. I would bet that real humans did encounter Tyrannosaurus Rex or a close cousin; the wings so typical on dragons in the west, but not the Chinese variety, may have been poetic license too; I’d prove it, too, if only I had handy access to the Akashic Records. (Google has a ways to go yet.) Creationists shorten the age of the earth, but anthropology may be artificially shortening the history of homo sapiens. As I’ve noted in a post on “Catastrophism” last year (link) we don’t really know what prevailed in times about 10,000 years ago and going back; all we have is stone and debris, and carbon dating; the latter may not be a very high-resolution lens.

Now as for that fiery breath, we do know something about that. It doesn’t take a dragon to produce it. Why, in our extended family lives Katie the Beagle who, before some very expensive dental work corrected the phenomenon, used to have a breath so strong that it could derail a speeding train. One didn’t see the flames—but felt them. That breath might explain the reason why St. George stayed up on his horse and used a long lance.
Illustration is the coat of arms of Kahlenbergerdorf, an independent community until 1892, now part of Vienna. The figure in the image is identified as St. George. The source is Wikipedia (link).

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Sports-Dope Nexus

Perhaps the strongest “dope” used in the world of sports is not any kind of chemical substance but simply money: the commercialization of sports. Professionalization is just one step in that direction. Within already recognized professional sports, over-arching performance, which leads to larger contracts, temps individuals to enhance their bodies chemically—so that we have three levels in this activity: amateur, professional, and doped-professional. The last is still not sanctioned.  The variations here are complicated. The amateur who sells his or her name to a sponsor is one. In some sports prizes take the form of cash. The subject has interested me almost since childhood.

In my year of my birth Jesse Owens starred in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—and I learned, in childhood already, about Owens’ difficulties after  that event. Owens’ career began in 1933 when he obtained a track-and-field scholarship at Ohio State University (OSU)—and scholarships are, are they not, a kind of payment in kind? Another variant? In 1935 already, he fell afoul of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for having his travel expenses reimbursed by OSU disguised as payment for work in the Ohio State Legislature; this cost him a prestigious award. After the Olympics, Owens turned professional—but found that interest in him immediately waned. He had lost his continuous visibility. He said, mournfully, “A fellow desires something for himself.”

Owens came from a humble background. His story, therefore, throws light on the vaunted “amateur” status of the then typical Olympian. These amateurs were of the upper classes—their avocations subsidized by family wealth. Is that yet another variant? Professionalism, since 1936, has completely triumphed in the Olympics. The invasion of the chemicals is still a battle in progress. Will chemicalization eventually triumph too? For the moment the outcome is still in the air. In recent days we’ve seen the exposure of Lance Armstrong’s uses. Today, in the New York Times, comes the story of a small-timer, one Christian Hesch, a runner. Small-timer? Yes. He earned $40,000 in prizes over two years in road races and came out of the closet to admit using a hormone that stimulates red cell production—which in turn increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. On and on it goes, big name, small name, all kinds of sports. It might be likened to a pressure, an irresistible pressure on sports the practice of which at visible levels requires the non-chemical dope.

Assuming things proceed as they do—give it a decade or four—chemicalization will also be accepted. What follows after that? Well, genetic engineering promises a wealth of innovations. The ambitious parents may, perhaps even before conception, already predetermine the athletic future of their children. And sports in that strange future will be like watching weird aliens competing—with bodies bred for baseball, basketball, football, and on and on. And just wait until athletically ambitious big countries put their massive resources into the battle.

The incoherence of our culture is shown by the fact that chemical doping of athletes’ bodies is abhorred—while a woman’s right to her’s is holy writ. I suppose that sex is not yet officially a sport.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Chafing Tide

Herewith a companion piece to the last post. This quote has a source too complicated to cite at the outset, but please note that the Dr. Johnson here is not named Samuel Johnson; that Dr. Johnson died before the nineteenth century dawned (in 1784).  First the picture:

…it was the wear and tear of early nineteenth century London life that … made a change of surroundings desirable and often mandatory. Dr. Johson’s own impressions upon his departure from the English metropolis in search of better climes present a graphic picture of a “modern” industrial capital. “As the carriage moved slowly up Shooter’s Hill, one fine autumnal morning, I turned round to take a parting look at Modern Babylon. My eye ranged along the interminable grove of masts that shewed her boundless commerce—the hundred spires that proclaimed her ardent piety—the dense canopy of smoke that spread itself over her countless streets and squares, enveloping a million and a half of human beings in murky vapour.”
     Inevitably there follows his nostalgic comparison with his first sight of London thirty years earlier, when it appeared calm and beautiful and promising of a peaceful life. But even then, the “chafing tide of human existence” made him feel annihilated, “lost like a drop of water in the ocean,” and he felt certain that there were “few who do not experience this feeling of abasement on first mixing with the crowd in the streets of London.” In this engulfment which, according to Dr. Johnson, first gives rise to ever-mounting tensions resulting in a condition of “body and mind, intermediate between that of sickness and health, but much nearer to the former” which is constantly felt “by tens of thousands in this metropolis, and throughout the empire.” Dr. Johnson considered this condition incurable, although he was sure that it added greatly to the practice of the doctors and of the undertakers.

The actual text appearing here came from an article by Ilza Veith, “The Wear and Tear Syndrome—1831,” appearing in Modern Medicine, September 4, 1961. The content is part of a review by Veith of a book, published in 1831, by Dr. James Johnson, Change of Air or The Pursuit of Health. In turn, I found this review in Karl A. Menninger’s book, The Vital Balance, published in 1963.

The Earlier Satanic Mill

What with the elevation of Hildegard of Bingen to the status of a Doctor of the Church, I was looking back to the times when she lived, the twelfth century. And it was a very interesting time. Some of the big names of that time, arranged here by year-of-birth, were Omar Khayyam, Hildegard, Thomas Becket, Frederick Barbarossa, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Maimonides, Saladin, Genghis Khan, Ibn el Arabi, and Francis of Assisi. In perusing these patterns, I also stumbled upon something striking. It was the “birth date,” so to say, of a precursor of industrialization. The Arsenal of Venice was founded in 1104. It was still around and thriving when Dante wrote his Inferno, and the following quote (from Canto XXI, Sayers translation) ranks it squarely among the satanic mills:

For as at Venice, in the Arsenal
In winter-time, they boil the gummy pitch
To caulk such ships as need an overhaul,

Now that they cannot sail—instead of which
One builds him a new boat, one toils to plug
Seams strained by many a voyage, others stitch

Canvas to patch a tattered jib or lug,
Hammer at the prow, hammer at the stern, or twine
Ropes, or shave oars, refit and make all snug —

So, not by fire, but by the art divine
A thick pitch boiled down there [in hell], spattering the brink
With vicious glue; I saw this, but therein

Nothing; only great bubbles black as ink
Would rise and burst there; or the seething tide
Heave up all over, and settle again, and sink.

The Arsenal was something quite unbelievable for its time. It could assemble a complete sailing ship in the space of a day—from uniformly fabricated components made in other parts of the facility in what amounted to an assembly-line manner. In that time, elsewhere, such ships took months to build. Up to 100 ships were at various stages of completion in the shipyard. The factory occupied more than 100 acres, was surrounded by a thick wall, and employed 1,600 people. It was also used for refurbishing old ships, as Dante indicates. It got its name from also manufacturing munitions. Come to think of it, shipbuilding at such a scale was next accomplished by the U.S.A. during World War II.

I note here that Venice was a Republic then. Its governance took that form in 697—and ended with Napoleon’s conquest of Venice in 1797. On that same date, the Arsenal of Venice also ceased to function. Republics and satanic mills? Do they go together? William Blake’s formulation of that label (in his poem, Jerusalem) dated to a time when London had been shrouded in smoke and pollution as the capital of the nascent Industrial Revolution. As for us, today, we mourn the passing of those mills but under the milder name of manufacturing. There they stand, those mills, abandoned; and the wind blows litter and plastic bags over vacant lots. Such is human fate. Love it and lose it. Wish it, get it, curse it, and mourn the idyllic past—but when it threatens to return, mourn that return in turn.
As an addendum here, let me note that the average life span of the famous people named above was 67 years; the thinkers lived longer; the warriors passed earlier; the martyr, Becket, died at 52; perhaps the most intense of them all, Francis, only lived to be 45.  The three with the longest lives were Khayyam (83), Hildegard (81), and Ibn el Arabi (75).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Elephant—Again!

Last year this time I noted with pleasure that the Detroit Tigers had faced the Elephant of Baseball in the American League Division Series and emerged victorious over the Yankees— and that had felt good. The Tigers were then Texas-bound but succumbed to the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series. The Rangers in turn battled St. Louis in the World Series, the team that ranked second in WS wins then—and St. Louis won again.

This year, and you might say miraculously, the Tigers overcame Oakland (baseball’s third-ranked team in WS wins) in the ALDS but now face the Yankees in the ALCS. We’re working our way up Baseball Mountain, you might say. Is the air a little thin on oxygen this high? Yes! To get a sense of how far up up is, I suggest a look at the baseball rankings I put up last year (link). The chart has been updated to show last year’s dire outcome. And if the tiger manages to fell the elephant, what then looms ahead? The next opponent will either be second-ranked St. Louis or sixth-ranked San Francisco. That tempts me, prospectively, to hum a [modified] song by Tony Bennet. Here’s how it starts:

The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
So I’m going to hit home runs in the city by the bay!
I left my bat ... in San Francisco...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Masterpiece Theater Coinage

When the charming teenaged Demelza offers her body to Captain Poldark at their initial meeting for a shilling, you know several things. You know you’re watching Masterpiece Theater, that this is some twentieth century author’s fantasy of what Old England was all about, and that Demelza will become a formidable character if we just keep on watching. But what you do not know is the actual value of a shilling. You infer that it must not be much because Demelza is a slum-kid; that fact is signaled by her ragged clothing and dirt smudges on her face. Indeed all of the lower classes must have smudgy faces, and if they are males, staggering drunkenness is presumed. But let me not stray from my subject. You know that a guinea is worth something—because the rich and evilly scheming Warleggans hate even to spend a single one, and they are always (presumably) sweating under wondrous wigs. You know that a half-crown is less than a crown and both are more than a shilling, because a half-crown is the typical tip, given by someone dressed well to someone dressed coarsely and therefore having charge of the horses and such. You expect that penny is less then a shilling and that the farthing is the dismal bottom of all coinage because the phrase, “Not worth a farthing” must be uttered in a tone of contempt. Now you know, by context, that this is the England of the eighteenth century. Over in France the great Sun of Liberty, Democracy, and Freedom is about to rise, foreshadowing such future wonders as vice presidential debates even in the lost Colonies. But where, in all this, is the British pound? You never hear it mentioned. Well, Ghulf Genes to the rescue. But, based on past experience, what I learned today I’ll probably forget tomorrow and have to do all over again. Therefore this post is worth about 3s. 6d.

Let me begin with the here and now. The British coinage here and now, and in place since the 1971 decimalization took place, consists of the pound (also known as the pound sterling, symbol £); it is divided into 100 pence. None of the other coins is any longer in use. As of this morning, £1 was worth $1.61. Until 1971, £1 divided into 20 shillings, each shilling into 12 pence. After that date the shilling disappeared, of course, but it is worth 5 pence if converted. Therefore, in today’s U.S. purchasing power, a shilling is worth 8 cents. Poldark refused Demelza’s generous offer, thereby proving himself to be “a gentleman.”

Now let’s expand this view. The pound predates the guinea, but as a concept, not as a coin, and it goes all the way back to the reign of Charlemagne (742-814).  The Great Carolus defined a monetary value as the value of a pound of silver, named after the Latin libra, a unit of weight, in French livre. That word was abbreviated lb, hence that symbol stands for a pound to this day. The Brits took over the concept and its valuation. The shilling was a silver coin; twenty of them weighed a pound. The smaller coins that divided a shilling were modeled on Charlemagne’s denarius; for this reason (maddeningly), in written notation pence are written as d, therefore, above, 3s. 6d. means three shilling six pence. More maddeningly still, the s for shilling actually came from solidus, a very small Roman coin, not from the s in shilling. Solidus had survived for the same low-level coinage in France…

Now, oddly, the pound, referring to silver, was never actually a coin until modern times. It’s value was first physically represented by the guinea, a gold coin introduced in 1663 and worth 1 pound of silver. Under economic pressures, however, silver lost while gold retained its value, hence the value of a guinea fluctuated from its official definition as being worth 20 shillings. Later, in 1717, it was officially fixed at having a value of 21 shillings—illustrating that humans are not rational animals. In 1816 the sovereign, another gold coin, replaced the guinea, but by then, and already in Poldark’s times, £1 and £2 paper banknotes were in circulation owing to a shortage of gold.

Fortunately for fans of Masterpiece Theater, authors shy from really heavy historical labors and therefore crowns (worth 5s), half-crowns (2s 6d, also 2/6) are rarely mentioned. You hear people talking about a bob (another name for shilling). The farthing is never spelled out as one fourth of a penny, although its name suggests the word “fourth” being pronounced by someone with smudges on his face. Here’s also the ha’penny (½d), the tanner (6d), the florin (two bob), and the quid (£1); that last is thought to come from quid pro quo. Is there more? I wouldn’t doubt it. When totally confused, I retreat to my blessedly simple childhood memories. We had the pengö then, dividing into 100 fillér, and the 20-fillér coin had a hole in the middle. Where that was? Why in Magyaroszág.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Menningers of Kansas

Happenstance caused me to pull a volume from a shelf, a book I must have obtained in the 1960s but had but briefly skimmed then. Some vague memories remained, but the volume still had its dust jacket; dust jackets routinely come off when I read a book with care, hence I hadn’t. The book was Karl A. Menninger’s The Vital Balance: The Life Process in Mental Health and Illness. This time I read the book. In that process I discovered the reason why, nearly 50 years ago, I had put it aside, and also why I shouldn’t have. Every sincere and learned effort has value, and Menninger, one of the apostles of Freudian psychology, was a man of merit and worth.

Living in Kansas City from the early 1950s to about 1970 with some interruptions, we were quite aware of the Menninger Clinic in nearby Topeka, Kansas (in Houston since 2005), an institution that ranks up there with the Mayo. Learning more now, I discovered, for instance, that Charles F. Menninger, Karl’s father, together with William W. Mayo, have a day dedicated to them (March 6) in the Episcopal Church (USA)’s liturgical calendar! The Wikipedia page that told me this is also labeled Saints portal—which tells the astute reader a good many interesting things about cultural fusions and such in these Latter Days. In any case, the Menninger Clinic was founded by C.F. Menninger and his sons Karl A. and William C., all three psychiatrists. The third and middle son, Edwin A. Menninger, became a journalist, the founder of a paper in Florida, and a great promoter of flowering trees, which is not a bad divergence from the family profession if diverge you must. Edwin also wrote a book called Fantastic Trees.

The most famous Menninger was Karl (1893-1990), principally owing to his writings. Best known of these are The Human Mind, his first, Man Against Himself, and The Vital Balance. While Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is permanently linked to the concept of sex, the libido, the life drive, Karl Menninger’s work is centered on Freud’s lesser-known death drive that others, later, labeled Thanatos, after the Greek personification of death. Human existence is the battle between life and death, played out in each individual, both being drives, a favorite Freudian concept (in German Trieb). Menninger’s Man Against Himself, is a detailed analysis of this darker drive, which manifests as aggression and destruction. And his The Vital Balance is an attempt to show in fine detail how the right balancing of these two drives produces the fully-developed human being.

It is undoubtedly useful to see reality, occasionally, through lenses quite differently fashioned than my own, and reading Menninger is an example. Does modernity also have its own projection of a Fallen World? Oh, yes. It does when it is serious—and Menninger was serious above all. Also an eloquent writer on the most arcane and difficult subject, the human soul, albeit that word, when used at all by him, gets quotes around it. Something in that Freudian lens, however, blocks out some of the light. When Menninger refers to transcendence, he uses that word to mean a better adaptation; to use his own phrasing, when you transcend the destructive and the libidinal drives, you are “weller than well.” And, in the end, Thanatos has the last word after all…
The flowering tree shown is the Tabebuia, courtesy of Mary616 (link), which also has more information on Edwin A. Menninger.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Rise of the Arch

The virtue of the true arch, whether used for an opening into or a hollow space within a structure, is that in ages before steel came into use as a weight-bearing member, the arch could make a wider opening and/or a greater hollow than any other form of support, be that columns holding the horizontal lintel of a gate or supporting a roof. And the secret the ancients discovered was that stone is easily cracked and broken when weight above it causes it to stretch (tensile force) but resists weight much more effectively if the weight causes it to compress instead (compressive force). For this reason, before the discovery of the arch, huge temples were forests of tall columns, not much more than 10 feet apart—although nicely aligned.

The earliest arches, known also as false arches, emerged as far back as the second millennium BC. They attempted to reduce the tensile stress on bearing members by extending the supporting columns stepwise into the opening, as shown by the illustration of this early kind of arch, known as a corbel. Corbelled arches predate the true arch by two thousand years and are found all over the world, including ancient South America.

The Etruscans invented the true arch, also shown as a diagram. By using wedge-shaped stones, they converted tensile stresses on the stone from above into compressive stress, so that the force exerted on the stone is transferred laterally to the columns—as shown in the illustration. The Romans learned the art, perfected it, and then applied it with enormous exuberance to every kind of building, including enormous aqueducts. The true arch was solidly in place by the second century BC. The later flying buttress (mentioned on this blog here) is an extension of the principle that manifests in the arch.

In contrast to stone or brick steel stretches easily under weight while retaining its integrity. When steel beams began to be deployed as weight-bearing members in the nineteenth century, the functional role of the stone arch was diminished. Not that such did not continue to be built—indeed they still are. The massive deployment of steel in buildings is, of course, the consequence of plentiful supplies of cheap fossil fuels. As these sources of energy are exhausted, the arch, no doubt, will once more become an important technology—the enabler of generous interior space.

I bring this post today by way of illustrating a point I made yesterday about technology. Technology cumulates even as large social structures decay, die, and others are then born in turn. The corbelled arch survived the decline and fall of Sumer and Akkad; the Roman arch survived the decline and fall of Rome and may rise in the future. How the old is passed on to the present is illustrated neatly in two YouTube videos. The first is titled “How I Build Stone Arches,” by Mike Haduck (link). It’s hands on. Amusingly, it illustrates how modern and ancient technologies cooperate—when Haduck uses an electric saw to shape his stones…and then consults an old book that illustrates arch-building early in the twentieth century. The second, “History of Visual Technology: Stone Construction and the Arch,” presents an excellent tutorial on the fundamentals involved in this art—and how it has evolved over time (link). The arches closest to our house? Why, they are part of our house (built 1929). We walk beneath them each time we go somewhere.

The stresses in matter can, by careful observation, be made to harmonize beautifully. The stresses in large aggregates of people—not quite so effectively. But the human experience is highly layered. As we leave the upper levels where the compressive stress of union and the tensile stress of freedom are most visibly in conflict, great constructs eventually give way—while at lower levels useful tooling is never quite lost even if knowledge about it thins out and has to be recovered from old books using Xerox machines.

To this, as a card-carrying word-maven, I need to add a caution. Architecture does not have its roots in “the arch.” In that word the root is archon, the Greek for “master” or “chief”—chief builder. The arch has its root in the Latin arcus; it stands for the “bow.”
Images from Wikipedia link for the corbel and link for the true arch.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From the Edge

Reading the papers this morning, I have the feeling of looking at the world from the edge of eternity. Observable is the age-old tug and pull of conflict. If I were transported in time to any earlier period, I would soon see it again if only I had the same lens modernity’s media have fashioned in our times. And it is certain that transported into a very far future, my report would not change, not in essence.

People who unrealistically long for the return of some Golden Age have essentially the same stance as those who believe in Progress. They’re living in the now and project some hoped-for resolution on the horizontal plane of time: the past shall return; the breakthrough is in the future. Our lives, however, are always in the Age of Iron—no matter what the cultural stage: growing, declining, transitional, or static.

One of the curious aspects of change over long periods of time is the contrast between culture and technology. By technology here I simply mean “tooling.” Cultures cycle. Technology cumulates. The discovery of steam-power and fossil fuels gave the last two centuries a sudden and enormous increase in tooling—but the improvements have been there, at the level of tooling—not at the level of core human behavior. That genuine improvement has produced the illusion of some kind of radical change in humanity. To be sure fossil fuels will be exhausted, but using energy in new ways will remain a permanent acquisition. The next Dark Age will have quite different features than the last; we’ll have plenty of solar panels, windmills, fancy explosives to help us get to geothermal sources, and so on. To be sure, also, the loss of wealth from heaven (or from the deep) that coal, oil, and gas represent will produce significant disorder; during such times innovation grows dormant, except in the military sphere, but knowledge is never entirely lost. Technology, therefore, will continue to cumulate.

Hard-nosed realism, curiously, requires a transcendental view. It rests on the fusion of comprehensive observations both of what lies within us, not least our hopes for a “millennium,” and what we see around us. This suggests a “fallen world” and also a “world beyond.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lifelong Learning?

Most of life’s learning serves adaptation in the sense that its subject is the world. In a real way even such arcane studies as astronomy help us in a practical way; they provide an important grounding for our stance and action: orientation. The knowledge of history belongs in this bin too; we can no more meaningfully shape history by individual action that we can steer the stars, but knowing great patterns of collective behavior and their cyclings makes us more sober and therefore detached observers of that which unfolds about us on quite another time scale than our own brief life.

The adaptive urge has been a great teacher for me. Amusingly the very subjects I dismissed in youth because they didn’t draw me became central to my work-life: mathematics and chemistry. These were among “required” courses, but C- was good enough for me. Then, under the prod of necessity I later learned them on my own; the difference both in the feel of these subjects and the experience of learning was enormous. What matters is the inner self wanting to learn something. Without that we get, ah, what goes by the name of education. There is also a lucky part to this, at least for me. I can’t abide understanding something “just enough” to get some job accomplished. Once I’m into a subject, I can’t rest until I’ve grasped its entire inner pattern. This does not mean academic level command of the subject—but it means penetrating to its essence, at least so far as this is possible. And since that essence is elusive, it leads to a lifelong interest.

There are two kinds of forced learning: the first is delivered by collective social pressure; the second is delivered by the will of the individual. The first is easily resisted, finessed, satisfied. The second is horribly demanding, irresistible; it arises from desire. In my case the image of the junk yard dog always arises. I’ll be damned if you resist me! Let’s call that the response if the subject appears as an obdurate enemy. But the mystery of the subject may appear in feminine guise as well, in which case what drives one on is total love.

So where in all this, one might wonder, is the quest for truth? Curious business that. The Truth seems at first to be wrapped in the garments of the world. Slowly, slowly, as these are examined, understood, and removed, more and more of the real Truth emerges to view. Then, in advanced years, the world itself becomes more and more transparent, manner of speaking. The discovery of the Higgs boson brings more merriment than awe. That is because something has begun to shine beyond such petty matters and the Real is finally emergent.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Doctor of the Church

Vatican Radio confirmed the news this morning. St. Hildegard of Bingen is now a Doctor of the Church. She was officially canonized in May of this year, putting the Pope’s seal on a sainthood bestowed by popular acclamation centuries ago. A link here to an earlier post about her follows (link). She was a multifaceted person of genius who lived at the peak of Christianity’s efflorescence, born 1098, died 1179. She was a visionary, composer, poet, mystic, playwright, writer, preacher, founder of houses, and administrator. She also created a new alphabet. The Vatican today brought an image of her I’d never seen before. It is tiny; no higher resolution is available; but what it shows is that Hildegard also seems to have done the humbler work of bringing home the wheat at harvest time. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Middle Way

Polarized situations, such as the one now striving for a resolution in our politics, always remind me that “yellow is the color of the middle way.” That comes from China. In Confucius (551-479 BC) it is the Great Mean or the Doctrine of the Mean, derived from Analects 6:26 which says: “The virtue embodied in the doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order. But it has long been rare among people.” You don’t say! The formulation needs unpacking, something Confucius did not but others who followed him did. It appears to refer to an “unwobbling pivot,” thus a kind of hinge from which one can go this way and that. Confucius’ contemporary, Gautama Buddha (563-483 BC), spoke of the Middle Path; he described it as some point where the self is neither attached to the senses nor addicted to self-mortification—the two extremes of sensate and religious cultures. We find it echoed in the I Ching during a later, troubled time in China, the I Ching, 2 K’un, The Receptive, moving line five:  “A yellow lower garment brings supreme good fortune.” The I Ching dates back at least to the Warring States Period in China (475-221 BC). In the West we have the Golden Mean—and there is that yellow coloration again.

One could speculate at length about the nature of that pivot. I take it to mean the human self detached from passions in either direction and harmoniously poised, anchored in its sovereign transcendence. How to apply that to the current polarization…? Well, for the Buddha, the Middle Path was emptiness. Which is, largely, what we see as we stare down the yellow brick road that leads to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Caucus Club

All things pass, but some will be fondly remembered. News comes today that The Caucus Club is closing in the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. The 47-story Penobscot building is one of the tallest and finest in Detroit, and this restaurant (not really a club), tucked into a relatively small space next to the Congress Street entrance, one of its quiet jewels. Many of us occupants came and went by that entrance daily; the parking lots lay in that direction. Most of us, of course, regularly ate our lunch at the Epicurean Café in the basement, another great old venue. It also passed into memory (in June 2006)—but by that time it had been acquired by a new owner who seemingly didn’t have what it takes. The Caucus Club (sixty at its passing) was for special lunches or for drinks after work on celebratory occasions. My memories are of dark spaces but artfully lit; it had privacy, atmosphere, table-cloths for dinner, alcoholic beverages, and a great selection of fine cigars as you came and went.  

Back when we took up our “residence” in the Penobscot—Brigitte leading the way, as Editor of Gale’s most prestigious title, Encyclopedia of Associations—she had her offices on the 13th floor. Of course! A year or so later I followed—and had my first tiny suite on the 13th floor too. Later we (Editorial Code and Data, Inc.) moved up to the 31st, eventually occupying almost the entire floor, before “publishing” departed for the suburbs. In those days the largest single occupant was Gale Research. Many of the other residents were prestigious law firms, associations, corporate headquarters, and such. We’re now talking about the 1980s. When Gale left a decade later, temporary jails had been put in place in the Penobscot’s basement and the building was beginning to serve as an overflow for the city and state governments’ judicial branches.

Strange how memory transforms the tense, gritty day-to-day. Only warm feelings remain for our old Penob today—and especially warm memories of laughing groups, down in the Caucus Club, unwinding after special days, celebrating the publication of tough, hard-fought directories, seasonal episodes, and just meeting friends. The Caucus Club’s interior by night was, even then, lit in sepia tones. With time that color has taken on a deeper hue. The troubles and crises we lived through can, of course, still be recalled, but the overall effect of looking back brings nostalgia for something lost. Farewell, Caucus Club. We thank you for the memories.
Image sources: Penobscot, Wikipedia (link); Caucus Club, Dining in Detroit (link).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Another Glance Back

A propos Tuesday’s post on looking back, and yesterday evening’s debate, a good way of comparing two different “times” is to review the Lincoln-Douglas debates. That last debate was followed by an awesome civil war. The cheery thought is that yesterday’s performance will have nothing like the same effect.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Farrago of Terms

People readily believe that others in their circle also know what they do. This arises, seems to me, because they’ve forgotten the price they paid for knowledge. Hence that damnable word palimpsest keeps surfacing in antiquarian discussions. It’s a mongrel of a word; I regard all words that contain a ps- beginning as such, a Greek favorite, as in psyche and the derived psychiatrist. The p is #@!& silent, so why print it. Coming to America and learning English, the Ogre was th. The absolutely simplest word in English was a bear to those who hadn’t just grown up with it. That damnable ps- belongs there with the the. Palimpsest comes apart, you see. Palim is “again” and psest is “rubbed,” deriving from psen, “to rub smooth.”  So what is it, finally? Well, a palimpsest is a piece of parchment bearing writing—but one from which the writing has been scraped off so that it can be used again—or it is the same parchment that has already been used again following a vigorous scraping. Why not just say “scraped parchment”? Well, you have to fit in. You have to stay on the reservation. You learned it as palimpsest—it was an achievement. A tiny little pride took root with that effort. The first independent use of that word gave you a little tremulous satisfaction. Therefore, never mind the ordinary ignorant reader out there. Learn it, dammit. I had to…

Parchment is another great word—and has nothing to do with the state of being thirsty. But back when we wrote on the skin of unfortunate beasts, that skin had to be dried. Or so you would think, wouldn’t you? Wrong. The word comes from (1) the name of a city then called Pergamon,  these days called Bergama (in Asia Minor) which evidently introduced leather in competition with papyrus; or (2) the Parthian region of ancient Persian from which the Romans obtained parthica pellis (Parthian leather), and in the repeated use of that phrase they dropped the leather part—much as the drinkable port began as vinho do Porto, a product of Portugal. Sometimes we lose the beginning, sometimes the end.

So what is a farrago? It is a medley, a mixture. I came across it yesterday in a book written in the late 1920. Google’s Ngram facility, which tracks the frequency of word usage way back, shows that for some reason, probably untraceable, the word had a sudden lurch of popularity from 1890 through 1920 roughly; before and after that period, the word lived and lives in the same obscure communities which serve up the palimpsest. The word comes from a mixture of grains, the Latin far, and was coined by the Romans. Barley is a cognate of far. Cognate? It comes from “together” and “born.” Born together, placed in the same cradle, as it were, often meaning that the same word was pronounced differently by different populations. All was well until the dictionary-makers rose to power and started writing down the careless mumbling of the people just out there guiding the plows….

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Dusty Rearview Mirror

Yesterday’s post reminded me. The old always bemoan the present. It’s always been so, hasn’t it? O tempora! O mores! The question here is whether that moaning is an indicator of real change or whether it is the consequence, strictly, of aging. If times fall into decadence, other more promising times rise from the shambles; people live through those times too, grow old while the culture is growing, not decaying. Do they still bemoan the present—which then, clearly, is an improvement over the past? I am sure that they do. So whence comes this dark view of the present?

The answer here is probably much more complex than pop-psychology might find. It tends to judge all things by viewing through a lens of egotism. The old are losing energy and wish to be “active” still—a ridiculous simplification much used by advertisers who picturing the aging still kicking ass. The old are by definition have-beens, sidelined, and ignored. They wish to be at the center still; they are not; therefore they view the times when they were as much better. Things change, but people get attached to things, and when they pass, they mourn. Ah, the good-old days when Sears was still Sears. Ssssigh. Hey! Haven’t you been to Costco lately? That sort of thing. And yes. Such things no doubt contribute to that moaning.

Also present here, however, is an objective level. Things do change, of course, but not always uniformly for the better. The physical environment may improve, but values may be lost. In the sacred past the passing of which is now bemoaned, physical conditions may have been a lot worse, but the values were more honored. The paradox is that they were honored because the physical was much more difficult. Alternatively, the physical situation has deteriorated; and in response values are now being cultivated. And the old person is reacting to the stresses of the physical. This tends to be the case in times of cultural growth. The decay of values is the worse of the two, but careful distinctions between the two are not always evident in the moaning.

Lastly—but to understand this you have to be genuinely old yourself—knowledge has slowly accumulated to show, rather clearly, exactly what kind of realm we inhabit in what the old, certainly, always think of as the valley of the shadow of death. For them that shadow has grown looong. That sort of thought is not exactly common-place, but may be intuitively felt. And the moaning then is a kind of projection to the present. To test it, close, detailed study of those glorious by-gone times we of the doddering generation like to sigh over is highly recommended. On such close inspection they turn out to be just as awful as the present. No wonder grandpa was always on and on and on…

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Waters of Madness

Today’s post on Laudator, “Flight,” and an earlier post called “Escape” referenced there (link), brought to my mind a Sufi story published by Idries Shah in Tales of the Dervishes called “When the Waters Were Changed” (E.P. Dutton paperback, 1970, p. 21). The brief tale is presented on the web (here). I will just give you the first paragraph:

Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded, would disappear. It would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.

Brigitte and I talk almost daily of “things in the air.” Of course we’re not alone. At one level one hears echoes of Tom Lehrer: “Just two things of which you must beware: Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” At another the air also carries the guiding suggestion to take flight, to seek escape.