Thursday, February 28, 2013

Setting a Marker

In this realm of flux, setting visible markers is an affirmation of duration. February, for us, is ever such a marker, as I’ve noted here before (link). This year another brief but very meaningful period ends on this the last day of the month. We shall also remember that anniversary. The Pope retires amidst the nasty noising of Modernity. The dogs bark, but the caravan keeps moving on.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Long-Enduring

The chance of war planted our family temporarily in Tirschenreuth, Germany in 1944—a place where porcelain manufacturing was a significant industry still, then. In consequence of that, I learned, while still in grade school, all about kaolin, the silicate mineral (officially kaolinite) from which china is made. Kaolin is also called china clay—and it delighted me to learn that the word itself comes from the name of a village in Jiangxi province, in China, Kao-ling.  Well, in our then region in Bavaria, kaolin was mined and made into porcelain. Kaolinite is a rock. You have to heat it in kilns to a temperature 2,192 to 2,552° before it can be poured as a liquid.

Was it because, as a child of ten or thereabouts, I studied the making of porcelain and awarely examined the product, that I came to admire finely-made porcelain? I’ll never know. One of life’s mysteries: we can’t know what might have been had we ended up, say in the much larger Regensburg, and Tirschenreuth china had not been there for me to admire, to caress, carefully to read the maker’s name when turning the plate over. The pleasure remains—and the thought that perhaps, in this world of flux, something in us comes alive when we encounter the long-enduring and incorruptible.

Porcelain can break, of course, but one of its oddities is that, even broken, it retains its enduring essence—and archeologists of the 15th millennium, digging up the shards, polishing them with a rag, will behold a wonder from the past, absolutely unchanged.

Stone figures, vast stone structures, belong to this category too—uniting durable nature and the human touch. But stone weathers faster; it endures millennia as well, but its features soften.

The image I bring is that of two Chinese moon flasks, dated to 1723-35, from the Qing Dynasty from Wikipedia (link).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Naming Your Newborn “Buckminster”?

Most people (certainly above a certain age) recognize the name of Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), he of the geodesic dome. Fuller also became something of a public intellectual and New Age figure in the late 1960s and 1970s, very much a positively-minded futurist and thought leader. Most people recognize the name, as I say, but not very many, and I’ll document this in a moment, ever wonder how that first name of his came about. Well, yesterday, Brigitte asked the question. She does tend to do that: ask the difficult ones.

Difficult because any serious perusal of at least web-based bios of Buckminster Fuller shows that all fully fail to explain that name of his. The first reason for that is that Buckminster wasn’t—wasn’t Fuller’s first name. He was born Richard Buckminster Fuller. But, and it’s a revealing “but,” he did not much care for that Richard—perhaps because his father was also named Richard Buckminster Fuller. For a while he called and signed himself R.B. Fuller. Then, later, he called and signed himself R. Buckminster Fuller. And then, as his fame grew, the media did the rest. They dropped the R. Soon Buckminster itself, a middle name, got shortened to “Bucky.”

After about an hour of trying and failing, the junk yard dog syndrome set in for me. I knew full well that Buckminster must be a family name, acquired along the way—far enough back when it was customary to name a child and, in so doing, honoring some female line. In our patriarchal world, women must abandon their lineage as they come under the shade of a husband. That custom began to be challenged, here and there, by self-assertive women—but it causes last names to turn very long and therefore inconvenient in the LOL age. In any case, I set to work consulting sites very unfamiliar to me: ancestry pages.

After another half an hour, I’d finally pinned down how the Fullers and the Buckminsters got linked and, in due time, produced R. Buckminster Fuller’s middle name. It all began in the eighteenth century with one Anne Buckminster. She married one Abraham Williams. Here is the rest of the story:

Anne Buckminster (1728-????)
m. Abraham Williams (????-1780)

  Sarah Williams (????-1822)
  m. Timothy Fuller (1778-1835)

    Arthur Buckminster Fuller (1822-1862)
    m. Emma Lucille Reeves (1833-1880)
      Richard Buckminster Fuller (1861-1910)
      m. Caroline Wolcott Andrews (????-????)

        Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

My helper in this venture? Geneanet, the international geneology database (link). The illustration shows the Montreal Biosphère built by Buckminster Fuller in 1967; my source is Wikipedia (link).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Winter Walk

Urbanization might be described, functionally, as the concentration of many people on relatively small areas of land. The process changes the subjectively-felt environment. What we call nature falls into the background; other people come to the fore and, indeed, come to saturate perception. Animals more or less disappear, so does green (unless we are in Central Park). The sky is there but does not naturally get our attention because weather (unless linked with the word “warning”) is unimportant. Superimpose high-speed electronic communications on this urban scene of highways and built structures. Next, miniaturize the devices so that even those out jogging (I see them every time I’m out on my these days infrequent walks) are having sound pumped into earphones or images to handheld devices they consult as they run. The other day I saw a woman wrestling two big dogs on leashes, one on either side of a baby carriage, while trying—despite a jerking dog—to see the image on her cell-phone screen. All right. Animals are still present; reproduction still goes on. A little later I saw a dog sometimes allowed to be outdoors—but this dog (and little flags planted into the snowy ground tell me so) has been trained to stay on that lawn by radio-controlled pain-delivering devices in its collar. The modern marvel even controls the dogs.

Yet everything looks ordinary, the superimposition of the New Age almost invisible. Okay. The joggers wear skin-tight suits of a fabric unthinkable in the 1950s. But the scene? Well, most of the houses around here date to the early teens and twenties of the last century, i.e., a time when Jules Verne had just recently departed. Near dusk I see the electronics in the houses—but only partially; they are lighted rectangles blocked by lampshades and artificial flower arrangements—signaling a kind of “life,” a little “warmth.”

In the 1950s science fiction dystopias projected all this much more dramatically. Unfortunate humans had alien-mounted control devices affixed to the back of their necks. People lived in cubicles and watched Big Brother’s face on the screen. Active book-burning took place at a temperature of exactly 451° F. The odd long pods those people are carrying furtively into the garage? They are your double and mine—and when they break out of their brown chrysalides we will be replaced by obedient look-alikes. The 1950s enemy was always “out there” somewhere. And, if Mulder and Scully had it right, so was “the Truth.”

Yet very often, even in wonderful weather, I walk all alone—almost as if in a landscape entirely scoured of people. A few cars pass now and then. But these days, what with the self-driving car now officially permitted to roam on the West Coast, how do I know that there are people in them? Maybe the end times have come, I sometimes think, with a faint shudder. What if I am? What if I am one of the left behind?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dickens’ England

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of the most popular novelists in the English language—albeit these days that means films made of his books. He is not one of my favorites, although I think highly of Bleak House. “Bleak” is a good word for describing Dickens’ work. The dreary settings and the unjust society in which its polarized characters function—too evil, too pure—are perhaps associated with the city of London, but what Dickens reflected was the impact on an agricultural society of the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution, in turn, reflects a major urbanization of a population and its concentrated employment in factories where machines are initially used, then become the center, then, eventually, displace people. And where machines could not be employed yet, the social methods of forcing people into factories took place nonetheless—as in the so-called “sweated industries” like making matchboxes and lace, industries in which people were paid by the piece.

Just 20 percent of England’s population lived in towns when the first British census was taken in 1801. By 1851, the proportion had rises to 51 percent, by 1881 66.7 percent. The United States lagged far behind England. Here census dates come from the year before: 1800 - 6.1 percent; 1850 - 15.3, 1880 - 39.6 percent.

The unregulated—call it phenomenon—of industrialization brought with it all sorts of ills, not least extraordinarily long working days, child labor, and all sorts of labor unrest, usually put down by armed forces; some people were usually killed. Dickens’ life was also the time of the Luddites. Attempts by labor to unionize were resisted with the Combination Acts (1799, 1800); they should’ve been called “Against Combination Acts”; these were repealed in 1824 as reform began to take hold. Then unionization expanded.

Very slow but eventually effective public reactions to industrialization gradually caused the evolution of the welfare state—which is, viewed in perspective, another concomitant of industrialization, call it its human face.

If now political efforts are mounting to roll back the welfare state in late-comer United States, it may be a symptom of the fact that industrialization is beginning to weaken—at least so far as people are involved, as producers. People are still needed as consumers, to be sure, but today’s reformers, who want to roll back all of the defenses societies have mounted against untrammeled industrialization, seem unaware that if vast masses of consumers are weakened, the machines will also, ultimately, have to stop producing.

Two hundred years of industrialization—now beginning a slow fade. Boy, oh, boy. It will take quite a long while yet before we’re all back to farming—or herding. The smart family will settle in Navajo land and there learn the herding life over several generations before the industrial sun finally sets for good.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Asian Carp

I used to fish Asian carp as a boy in a modestly-sized lake in Palics, Hungary (now Palić in Serbia)—without knowing it. The kind found in Lake Palics was common carp, but all varieties of carp originated in Asia, were originally imported, and most were and are cultivated for food. They fight like the devil when caught and can get rather large. They are good to eat. For reasons that puzzle me, carp are viewed with disdain in the United States. Possible reasons are that they are omnivorous and eat aquatic plants as well as insects and other small creatures that live in muddy bottoms. They’re not a “game” fish—but they certainly have plenty of fight when hooked.

In the Great Lakes region and in the rivers that feed the lakes, the Asian carp are frequently discussed as a major nuisance, an invasive species; evidently we don’t like competition. The notion that they might be a terrific source of sport and food is simply off the table. But the time may come when all that will change. Here is a rich source of protein. Someday we’ll appreciate that.

Yesterday my brother, Baldy Darnay, sent along a quite fantastic video, produced by Indiana Outdoor Adventures. Three men are traveling up the Indiana river by boat—when they are subjected to an Asian carp attack. It’s worth seeing. Here is the link.

For more on this subject a quick-and-easy intro is provided on this U.S. Geological Survey site (link).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dark Matter? Maybe Not.

Great orthodoxies in astrophysics are like the Tower of Siloam (link). They grow cracks and begin to crumble in almost unnoticed ways—until, one day, they crash down with a roar. I became aware of another little crumble this morning (ht to Montag). It takes the form of a press release from Case Western Reserve University reporting on a study which appears to legitimize Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) and thus throws doubt on the existence of dark matter (link).

MOND, a theory introduced by Mordehai Milgrom, the Israeli astrophysicist, in 1983, suggests that Newton’s theory of gravity may not operate uniformly at all stellar distances, hence Newton’s theory needs “modification.” Wikipedia’s article on MOND (link) brings a graphic that neatly illustrates the problem.

Expected (A) and observed (B) star velocities as
a function of distance from the galactic center.
The dotted blue line illustrates the expected rotational velocities of stars at increasing distances from a galactic core. The red line illustrates the actually observed velocities. In order to explain that gap, between velocities predicted by Newton’s law of gravitation and what is actually seen, astrophysics has invented dark matter to supply sufficient amounts of mass to justify the observations—while keeping Newton’s laws untouched. The problem, of course, is that dark matter has not been physically observed. It is simply a projection of gravity-producing mass into a void which may be empty.

The current study is headed by Stacy McGaugh and Mordehai Milgrom and deals with the rotational behavior of seventeen dwarf galaxies that circle around Andromeda. This sort of thing interests me—because I feel quite uneasy about a cosmological picture in which virtually the whole universe (96% of it) is supposedly made up of dark energy and dark matter—of which we have not even the slightest knowledge in a touch-and-feel sense.

The word mond in German means “moon.” Well, it isn't full moon yet in astrophysics, but the light is certainly increasing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Future Holds Withdrawal

In my childhood I lived (among other grander places) in two small towns, one in Hungary (Sümeg) and one in Germany (Tirschenreuth). Both were deeply and unselfconsciously Catholic communities in which religious life was very much in the public square, the visible festivals were all religious, pilgrimages quite routine. The very environment was religious, you might say, and in each the most prominent structure was the centrally elevated church itself.

This sort of place certainly had huge influence on children—they could see, and couldn’t help seeing, large numbers of adult participating in the religious life in which children themselves were also being brought up and schooled. And my presumption is that it also influenced the aging, for whom the meaning of the lives they were completing was reaffirmed in a socially obvious way.

Both in Sümeg and in Tirschenreuth that life still continues dominantly—indeed with renewed energy. In Tirschenreuth, for instance, a miraculous event produced a series of pilgrimages beginning in 1719. These were later suppressed, in 1803, as Europe was forcibly secularized. But the pilgrimage came back and is, today, held on the 13th of every month. On a recent visit to Sümeg, my brother Baldy and Peggy (Baldy is my brother) and Tibor and Evelyn (Tibor is my cousin), witnessed an openly religious festival—and a pilgrimage—in Sümeg; the pilgrimage drew people from all over Europe.

The life in these places—which also host all the usual modern facilities, factories, and the like—is a remainder of an era when religious consciousness was the environment. The sea of faith was then, too, at the full. And, what with its persistence, it may expand again from settlements like that—places known as backward. But backward is also forward; just give it time.

In the land of the free and officially secular—where the public square may not even display the emblems of faith—the process is likely to take the form of a withdrawal rather than an expansion. I conclude this because, sooner or later, elements of the public will begin to recoil from a culture in which the First Amendment is interpreted as sanctioning violent computer games as “freedom of speech”—recently (2011) pronounced to be such by a 7:2 Supreme Court ruling in Brown, Governor of California et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al. I have posted the text of the First Amendment in the last post to serve as a reference here. The Justices saw the legitimization of training youth in violence contained in those words?

What with the Newtown massacre and gun control to the fore, such matters are much in the news now, and we were entertained by news of a test in which we saw the pale image of a teenage boy playing such games—and taking (ridiculous) questionnaire tests afterwards to “measure” whether he felt more aggressive after slaughtering vividly rendered digital images of humans than he felt before. Watching such a story one truly feels extraordinary disgust; and to hear commentary in which such madness is taken seriously produces mirages of the future.

In these mirages I see communities withdrawing. The Amish, Mennonites, and Huetterites will soon have company. It will be barely noticeable at first, but it will be a genuine movement, and as it grows in numbers, it will eventually rule. No. These will not be utopian communities destined to fade away. They will be real. No amount of reform legislation will ever work, but voting with the feet will. It’s in the air. Something within us tells us to take up farming again. And in a handful of decades or so, the drain-away of fossil fuels will bring practical confirmation of the faint inner urges that rise as we contemplate the death of reason.

Amendment I

To serve as a reference to the post that is to follow (but in blog-style above and not below), I here present the words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

She Led with the Right Word

In quite another context, looking at the phrase “soul mate,” I was on Google Ngram Viewer again. This facility tracks the occurrence of words or phrases in all books that Google has actually digitized and indexed. The pairing of “sense” and “sensibility” has long amused me—showing in a way how language changes. Back when Jane Austen wrote her novels, sense stood for rational thought and sensibility for feeling. Herewith the ngram that tracks the usage of all three since 1800:

Note how sensibility has just about disappeared from usage—whereas feeling at first rose fairly steeply in the nineteenth century and has, since about 1885, been on a slow decline—at least among the printed words Google has digitized.

Now for that other even more famous Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice:

What this ngram shows is that pride is holding its own, but it was a lot higher in 1800 than since. And prejudice has been rising steadily, as I interpret the chart, since 1845.

Austen, however, unerringly used the right word with which to lead in her titles. But never mind the ngram rank of Sense and Pride. When it comes to titles, one syllable always leads when the next word has five or three.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Music to Our Ears

Call Roto-Rooter, that’s the name, and away go troubles down the drain.

Compulsive student that I am of major anniversaries (see below), I only discovered today that I’d missed a Big One a few years back. The Roto-Rooter jingle celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 13, 2004—by my calculation about the time when we had our last Sewer Event until, that is, the one that will be seriously attacked today. (In fact the men arrived just as I typed that last period.) Sometimes music, poetry, and that dreaded real life actually converge.

Not Until Friday

George Washington was born on February 22. It was the second national holiday I myself noted consciously, after July 4. I’d entered the Army on February 21, and my second day was already a day off!! That sticks in the mind. Congress established Washington’s Birthday as a national holiday in 1879, celebrated on the day. In 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and moved this day to the third Monday in February. I entered the Army in 1956 and thus escaped this revision. Lincoln having been born in February as well (the 12th), calendar makers call this Presidents’ Day. But the official name remains Washington’s Birthday, which it isn’t really. All these Monday holidays (Washington’s, Memorial, Columbus’, Veterans, and later Martin Luther King’s) might be uniformly named Three-Day-Weekend days. The public likes it—so do the banks. The last time Washington’s actual birthday fell on a Monday was in 2010; alas it was the fourth Monday, not the third.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Remembering Pre-Media

What was it like before the media arose? To get a feel for that I just think back to the times when I was too young to read the printed version effectively. The time when I could came when I was already an adult, had left home, had joined the Army, felt myself out “in the world,” and bought myself a subscription to Time magazine.

Before that time the world seemed oddly greater—because the part I knew about was relatively small. It reached me through living people: parents, nursemaids, teachers, other children. Yes, radio was already present then. It had an odd, a funny sound. Adults sometimes gathered around it and listened to that sound with anxious faces. It was war time. Martial music would come in the wake of such troubling news.

Before papers, before radio? Outdoor markets and civic squares substituted for the media. People had to go outside and meet with others—or someone came by, hurriedly passed “it” on, and then one had to rush out to the square to see, to hear. As for what might be going down in far away Tibet—and whether or not some army was invading it—that sort of thing was way beyond perception.

I learned of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination from a young nurse in a hospital waiting room. I was the only person there, half nodding off as I waited for Brigitte who was giving birth. The nurse was shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes. Hers were right in front of mine. “They shot him,” she said in agitation. “They shot him.” And she was gone. I had to discover what she meant on my own. That was a tiny return to the pre-media days. But, of course, she’d heard it on the radio—and rushed out to take the news to whomever she could reach.

Even since my childhood, which already had that squeaky radio and those slow periodic papers actually worth reading—papers that printed special editions when something really big was happening—the world has been completely transformed. Distance has invaded our Now. Our bodies, optimized to deal with rather small environments—while our spirits can range to infinity—are now subjected to stimuli from all across the globe, in images, sounds, and in written form. We react to all of the alarms as if they were here, on top of us—but they are far away. They cloud our mood, they distract, they shanghai our reflexes and emotions. The media bring news of explosions and of mayhem—but do not match these with still landscapes that, in Tibet as indeed everywhere, are also part of the environment. Monstrous distortions. I applaud those who are beginning to filter out all the news unfit to know because we cannot do the least bit of a thing about them.
The image is an Amplion AR 19 Dragon Radio Horn Speaker shown here.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Presumption of Continuity

A farmer in Indiana is suing Monsanto over that company’s control of generically modified seeds. The lawsuit then constellates similar interventions into biology like modifications of human genes (to prevent or cure diseases) and their patentability. And where technology and patents are involved, ownership looms large. Brows darken when contemplating that some future humanity may have to pay royalties to some great Biotech Giant just to be permitted to live on with genetically-modified cellular DNA. Monsanto requires farmers to sign a contract that they will not collect and then replant genetically-modified seed sold by Monsanto. Will there come a time when a couple, one or both members of which have modified genes, will have to pay Biotech G a substantial fee before their baby may be removed (by C-section, of course)?

Such matters, however, are not my point this morning. I use then to illustrate something else. We worry about these incursions of Commerce into Biology because we operate under a presumption of continuity. By that I mean that we casually assume that what has been recently and is now will always be—and that all trends that we now see will continue on forever, intensifying as they go, and that the science fiction model invented in the 1950s is an accurate projection for centuries, indeed for millennia, to come.

If so—yes. There are lots of things to worry about. Apple is now working on its watch-sized smart-device. And after that the tooth-sized smart-device will follow, tooth talking to satellite, projecting the images it gets right into the eyes by genetically-modified ocular nerves. And just a little later, or simultaneously, will come that drug first mentioned in Dune, Semuta , which lets you hear music played permanently in the head if only you will take the pills. And on. And on. But that sort of projection is only plausible under the—presumption of continuity. Technology forever, capitalism forever, deformed democracy forever, fossil fuels forever (or some exciting new replacement for them, today still only a projection), urbanism forever, satellites, electric current vibrating in ever thicker strands forever so that, by night, the earth will glow like an almost-star.

None of these scenarios—or their manifestations in detail, like the smart-watch, the cancer-cure-ultimo in the form of a brief visit to the hospitals operated by Biotech G subsidiaries—none of that actually worries me in the least. And that is because the presumption of continuity is—wrong.

A much more sensible working model is that what goes up must come down, what has been will return. Now it so happens that at least one branch of science fiction—the not so scientific branch—has its own projection. In that what is to come is also, in greatly exaggerated form, rendered as one or another variety of Armageddon or Apocalypse. When we reach Z we must begin again at A. I think the farmer will lose his suit against Monsanto. Nevertheless Monsanto is doomed. The Deep Past is rushing toward us with a great wind and a roar from the future, but we’re so mesmerized by the presumption of continuity, we haven’t got a clue. Unless the ears are open.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Imminent Threat

One drawback of a “news fast” is that it denies us the opportunity to polish our linguistic skills. Let me illustrate this with a current controversy (those on a fast might wish to skip a sentence). Evidently killing American citizens using drones is Okay if they are an imminent threat to the United States. Here imminent means “near at hand” in time; threat means “a hostile intention.” The use of drones in such a context is preemptive—in that nothing has actually happened as yet—except awareness of an intention to commit a hostile act. Soon. This is the Bush doctrine personalized, as it were.

How far is Yemen from the U.S. coast? 7,129 miles away—15 hours by air. “Imminent” therefore means about 15 hours. The presumption is that the targeted Individual not only has the intention but is also the person to carry it out. Otherwise problems arise, even if “preventive war” were justified. What happens to the logic if the Individual acts through surrogates? The droning of the fellow might be justified if the surrogates had sworn on some holy book that they will only commit the terrorist attack while the Individual is still alive—and furthermore, word of his death can reach them fast enough, therefore before they explode the bomb. If no such oath was sworn, and if the Individual is not coming himself, the droning is just vengeance—in advance.

Evidently, since George W. Bush, preventive war has become acceptable, indeed unquestioned—itself a curious deformation of logic. Under that logic, the probability of attack is viewed as certainty—which is a linguistic error of the first order. But given that it is accepted, the citizenship of the Individual becomes the really core issue in this new doctrine. Why is his American citizenship controversial? The controversy must derive from American exceptionalism—another idea that seems to have achieved transcending status. Killing an Arab is Okay, indeed shrugged off. He need not even be a threat, imminent or otherwise. Enough for his demise to be known to be on the wrong side of history. But an American citizen? That’s a being above mere human status. The right to equal treatment under the law has been modified, evidently, as we’ve expanded the concept of preventive war. The American citizen must be physically located on United States territory to deserve the right. If he is elsewhere, it is best for him to keep his intentions to himself.

News fasts will also prevent us from delighting in such discoveries as the following. A drone is not just a pilotless plane. It’s also a male bee that makes no honey. And it is also a kind of dull recitation in which the words, for all practical purposes, make no sense at all: as the words of this new doctrine—or of the Bush Doctrine that gave them birth.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fasting on the Horns of a Dilemma

A news fast, a media fast. Needless to say, I approve of the activity as such. But it strikes me that people who publicize their own engagement in such a withdrawal by writing books and blog posts about it—and promoting themselves by giving interviews on diverse media, not least National Public Radio, are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Dilemma? Di for “two” and lemma for “proposition.” Therefore withdrawal by participation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wrought Iron Remembered

I met this gate when I was four or five on visits to my paternal Grandmother’s house in Sümeg, Hungary.  My long-standing love affair with wrought iron therefore goes deeply back into the past. I’ve wondered many times how that place might look—whether the house, the gate still stood. Now thanks to the excellent photographic efforts of sister-in-law Peggy Jenkins Darnay, here is how the place looked in late summer of 2012. The gate is still there, standing guard. In my day the courtyard beyond it was wider, extending about the same distance to the left, where a stone wall stands. The current owners have cultivated parts of it and laid down a stone walk. The house looks repainted—but the same color—and the stone has been whitened by blasting with sand. In midst of change, some permanence…

Monday, February 11, 2013


By one of those odd coincidences that become very meaningful, just this past Friday Brigitte and I read (she was reading to me) an article in The American Conservative titled “Philosopher of Love” by Jeremy Beer. The article, in the January/February 2013 issue, deals specifically with a philosopher, David L. Schindler, and more broadly with a school of theology that has come to be known as the Communio school, Communio itself being a federation of theological journals known as Communio: International Catholic Review. Among the founders of Communio, in 1972, the leading figures are Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper, Marc Ouellet, and Louis Bouyer. Some twenty years after this founding, Schindler became the editor in 1992. The article, in turn, gave us an introduction to the rise, in Catholic thought, of an important theological school. Today we learn that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned his office as of February 28. The rival to the Communio school within Catholicism is called Concilium. In a way even attempting to describe the differences between these two schools is well above my pay-grade (and any attempt to do so would be premature: I’ve only learned of the two three days ago). But B and I see in Communio something alive and vital, whereas Jeremy Beer describes Concilium as a kind of accommodation to secularism caused by a misreading of Thomas Aquinas. Therefore news of Benedict’s resignation caused a strange shock in this household. The Pope may retire now, but we hope that Communio will continue to influence the world. For those with time to listen to an hour-long presentation, this video, in which David Schindler answers seven questions, will certainly reward the time spent.

The Wind Clock

Clocks and calendars interest me much. A great wind blows this morning; yes, I can hear it even down here in the basement. Out in our yard a much abused little American Flag is the only indicator for the wind’s direction, but that’s problematical because our street extends from NNW to SSE, and to guess, what with the flag fluttering erratically, just what the direction really is, requires mental gymnastics I’m quite incapable while eyeballing a flag. So on to the Weather channel. Well, our wind this morning is coming from the direction of WSW. Dumb question time. What does that really mean? The compass crowd answered my question. Herewith I present the compass directions (from a site called Reading the Compass, link). You might call it a wind clock. I have the same basic problems with this sort of arrangement that I have tracking the sun’s apparent path through the course of the year. I tend to forget certain kinds of abstract blocks of knowledge unless I use them daily. And to think that, of our platoon in basic training, I was one of four who actually found his way to the designated point during a compass exercise—and then joined the noncoms in rounding up the rest. They were all over the map—or lost in the folds of the compass rose.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shape-Shifting Words

Let the Context do the talking, never mind the Words. For about a week now, Brigitte and I have been exploring the deeper meaning of that title above. Words are inherently layered anyway, even in culturally more disciplined times, but nowadays…  

A nice example came this morning in the New York Times, a book review. The book is titled Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. So what is this book about? It is about impulse purchases by women (who obviously can afford them) of low-cost items at places like Kmart, like $7 shoes. It is about finding your closet full of cheap things most of which you’ve never worn. It is about a “malaise” that makes us do this short of shopping. It is about the guilty Social Media that made us do it, about YouTube’s sins for letting people post tempting “haul” videos in which they glory in their heady purchases for nearly nothing. About “craving” connections to our “stuff.” because, somehow, we’ve become “disconnected” with “ourselves.” More importantly yet, we may be doing this to create an “eternal brand of the self.” The review goes on and on, documenting all the ills that weigh down the passive shopper. But suddenly comes the unexpected. The author, Elizabeth Cline, has clearly fought her way back to the chilling surface because, in conclusion, she suggests simply wearing what you already own—and taking up sewing to create the new. Such acts restore, she says, a person’s “agency and self-sufficiency.” Now such words in this context are indeed like being drenched by a bucket of snowy-cold water. Shockingly refreshing. Not all is lost. Agency? Self-sufficiency? These words come from another Order of Reality. Well, about time.

B and I got into shape-shifting words in discussing such concepts as time, space, reality, intention, will, feeling and the like—the hard-to-describe inner things dismissively named qualia by branches of philosophy. But all words are shape-shifters—because we are so incredibly intelligent, quite naturally, even if we’re only, or primarily, Kmart bargain-hunters. When shaken a little, we’ll understand agency and self-sufficiency too. A random sample for that shifting might be cover—but what do I really mean by that word? Is it that fluffy thing above the bed-sheet? Has it got some linkage to agenda, as in “Have we covered that yet?” Does it mean travel—as in “we’ve covered a lot of ground today”? Does it mean camouflage, as in “under cover.” Content—as in “it covers events in Indochina under French colonial rule.” Lots of things. It is a veil, a lid, a cap. It conceals—and it reveals, as in the cover of a book. It’s an image, it’s a function—it even reaches metaphysics: in PD James’ novel, Cover her Face, it also means death.

Context is king. Most ordinary human speech, recorded and then transcribed, sounds like a kind of bubble, broil, and flow—more wildly random than steady (like a down-pour). Some drops are shooting up, some whizzing off to the side, colliding, melting, interrupted, reasserting. Jabber. But we know what it’s about. We know how to understand the words—because we know the context.

Now to conclude. Using that word above, Indochina, brought  back a memory—suitable for “coverage” under the topic of shape-shifting words. Michelle, as a child, studying a map of the world hung on the refrigerator in our kitchen, something she did daily, looked up one afternoon and wondered if there was also an Outdoor China. She couldn’t find it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

In 1775

Just as I got up from dinner this day yours of the 15 & 18 came to hand; No desert was ever more welcome to a luxurious palate, it was a regale to my longing mind: I had been eagerly looking for more than  a week for a line from the best friend of my heart.
   [Mercy Otis Warren to James Warren, September 21, 1775]

The roots of postal services go deep—and were closely linked with what we call the media today. Mail delivery was typically assigned to newspaper publishers in for what seems a practical reason: they were already delivering paper goods to clients. Benjamin Franklin became the post master of Philadelphia in 1737 because he was a publisher. The post master had the right to decide which newspapers would be delivered free of charge; indeed, Franklin’s predecessor, also a publisher, had barred Franklin’s own Philadelphia Gazette from moving by mail. Much later, as the first Postmaster General of the United States, Franklin did away with this right and decreed that all papers would be delivered, each for a small fee.

The earliest post offices? They were designated coffee houses and taverns. You went to check there to see if you had mail. The first such was Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston, designated in 1639, principally as a depository for mail going to or coming from Europe. Distribution remained informal for a long time; individuals were asked to carry mail as occasions arose. The Post Office as we know it was established in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress (in July). It took some significant time before the services developed.

The letter I cite from, published in a favorite of mine, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, presents in its initial paragraph how the late colonial mail system (if such it can be called) performed. Mercy Warren, who was a poet and writer married to a politician, reports receiving two letters from her husband, the first written six, the second three days before the letters arrived. She was living in Plymouth, MA; he was attending the Massachusetts Congress in Watertown, MA some 40 miles away. Not bad, you might say. They didn’t have trucks then. These days, I’d guess, it would take a day. And in 2075? Now that’s something for futurists to ponder.

The Wine or the Bottle?

It seemed as though the earth were shaking off the rags of its antiquity, to clothe itself anew with a white mantle of churches.
   [Quoted in Albert Guerard, France—A Short History, W.W. Norton, 1946, p.85, attributed to Raoul Glaber, an eleventh century monk of Burgundy.]

In times when a culture is growing, in its Spring Time, people create institutions spontaneously. It is the spirit that matters then, not the containers made to hold it; they come about spontaneously. But later, as a culture begins to decline, people come to believe that it is the ancient institutions that were the source of virtue. Therefore if things are going awry, something is wrong with the institutions; they must be fixed, reformed, renewed, and modernized. Democracy coincided with the growth of the United States to the status of a world power; therefore we must now reform democracy, make it more direct. Or it is said that the old institutions have been abandoned; our troubles arise from that; let us therefore return to the basics, to the fundamentals. The truth is that a spirit must be present to create its own container, and when it has lost its savour, it isn’t there any more. Therefore when all the talk is about reform—when mechanics are to the fore, when we’re messing with the process—it means that the spirit has fled. Charter schools, educational waivers, teacher’s salaries or teacher’s performance assessment? If social arrangements could produce a cultural élan, then matter could also produce a soul. Neither works. At times like that one minds one’s knitting and simply waits.

To see a contrast to the eleventh century quote above, I suggest, at Brigitte’s suggestion, reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”; it was written about 800 years later. Here is a link.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The World’s Complexity

We think that the visible universe is complex: big bang, black holes, dark matter, great walls, the great attractor (link). But the same appears when we look anywhere. A recent acquaintance and I were having a conversation a few days ago; I’ll call him DF. We were both waiting for our wives to emerge from swimnastics exercise. I asked him what he’d been doing before retirement. Printing, he said. Ah yes. A link. Printing had been part of my early life as well, including part-ownership for a while of a tiny printing enterprise. We got to talking. DF sighed at one point. He recalled the greatest investment he’d ever made in his life—in a $5 million printing press, the sort of thing you use for printing magazines. He explained the sigh as well. What with such investments requiring recovery—and the vast rolls of paper one had to buy for every job—so little tricked out between these two massive pressures that one lived, always, on the edge. Ours was the briefest of exchanges, but later I looked into this.

The press DF had talked about turned out to be a Hantscho Mark 16—the kind of machine that’s half of a football field long, prints 32-page sheets in eight colors at the rate of about 11 impressions per second, with dedicated computers monitoring each color in real time and adjusting them by automatic tweets. The Hantscho was present in my early days already—but the big name then was the Heidelberg. The ant-sized press we used was a Multilith—monitored by a single human brain and adjusted using hands. But I remembered visiting the big presses and being in proper awe.

I got to wondering if the Hantscho still existed. In a way yes, in a way no. Back in the days when DF bought the Mark 16, it had already lost its independence to a giant called Rockwell International, a company remembered, if at all, as an aerospace giant. It had acquired, along the way, a major printing giant called Miehle-Goss-Dexter. Hantscho was either part of that combination already, the Goss part, or was acquired at around the same time. Eventually—in what seems to have been the “reorganization” caused by the end of the Cold War, Rockwell fell apart into pieces. One of the spun-off parts was Goss Graphic Systems Inc., in which Hantscho once more surfaces as a product. But Goss, having spruced up its name to Goss International, was eventually (in 2010) acquired by a Chinese Giant, Shanghai Electric. That company was then, and probably still is, assembling an overwhelming presence in mass printing machinery—in answer to a vast expansion of newspaper and magazine printing that marks China’s rise to a global capitalist power.

Little did I imagine that DF’s supplier—whose press left such a deep impression—would eventually lead me all the way to China, to Shanghai, the worlds largest city proper (for an explanation go here). But it shouldn’t have surprised me. My second corporate employer, J.F. Pritchard, an engineering company, followed a similar track and has long since been absorbed by a giant engineering corporation in South Korea.

Those invisible lines of ownership. Network upon network upon network—all marked by ownership. The close-to-the-highest layers above us is mostly empty airspace. But recently a Russian airplane violated “ownership” of Japan’s airspace, thus embroiling Japan not just with China to the west and south but with Russia to the north. Somewhere within Shanghai Electric is a person, no doubt male, who owns more of that company than any other person and therefore has the greatest claim to “owning” what had once been Hantscho. As a single person, what power does that gentleman have to enforce his rights of ownership in far away America?—a land ever more covered by clouds of irrelevance to the dawning future.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How Values are Acquired

The values we absorbed in childhood remain with us our whole life long. They are in the culture all around us. And the values concretely expressed in our families and in our early schooling mark us most potently; those in the wider society, more mildly; and adults will see social values through the lens they fashioned in their childhood. The values thus acquired may be positively or negatively experienced. A childhood of neglect and of abuse? Negative toning. A nurturing, caring home? Positive.

The observations of Maria Montessori (1870-1952) are a clue to this. She observed that children pass through periods of heightened sensitivity when their minds are absorbent. They literally acquire all that is about them through the skin—not least their physical surroundings—so that, later in life, they are never really content unless they live in a region that matches the climate and landscape of the one where they spent their sensitive years. All other learning they experience, as young adults and onward, has a less compelling, potent quality. They are imprinted, as it were—not just with the culture and its values but also with their innate reactions to it.

When the values of a culture gradually thin out—say they are deformed, mechanized, edited to conform to some rising fashions—the children who receive that culture through the skin will later manifest it in their lives and thus they also pass it on. The process also works in reverse. A shallow culture may also deepen, usually because of upheavals and sufferings experienced by large collectives. And thus a richer, more meaningful culture may be acquired naturally by the children born into such times.

In modern thought this indelible “imprint” tends to be ignored. Modern thought is marked by the cerebral, mechanical, procedural, and programmatic; intuition is too messy. But the imprint is all-important. The education will not take if the inner culture of the child, the heart, does not resonate with it. If the absorbed culture is good, it acts as an antidote to decadence; if weak, it acts to dilute the strength even of excellent higher education.

We notice this phenomena as we age. One’s own childhood experience, that imprint, forms a kind of benchmark against which all that happens later is compared. And here, again, the quality of that early experience is crucial. If the future deepens, the individual will embrace the good if he or she experienced it potently in childhood. If not, the good will be resisted.

Having said this, I note next the virtual impossibility of “engineering cultures.” Cultures are too complex to be formed by deliberate public actions. Children can’t be left behind if they were properly formed in the first place. Nor can they be promoted if not. Culture is a given, a simple brute datum. It keeps changing not by programs, curricula, and advertising but by something mysterious—and it is mysterious because it is too vast to track.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Outage Report

Since this blog began, we’ve had three Internet outages: September 17, 2011, January 7, 2012 and February 1, 2013. In the first instance, a power cord had gone bad. In the others the fault lay in AT&Ts failure to transmit a DSL signal. Now that the web is back, I am pleased to be able to report that those letters stand for Digital Subscriber Line. In each of the first two cases we were down for a day, in the last case for most of three days. These outages teach a lesson: we have become so highly dependent on the web’s communications facilities that its outage produces at least the strong temptation to talk about an “existential crisis.” Then, of course, one laughs. Nothing like humor to remind one of one’s own humanity.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


The New York Times today leads with a story about a young man who became addicted to Adderall, a drug intended to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He had a long and complicated history with various prescription drugs, Adderall the last one; he committed suicide two weeks after his last Adderall prescription ran out. He was an adult, not a child. Neither his mother nor his father believed that he’d ever suffered from ADHD, not as a child, not later. But Adderall is evidently an addictive sort of medication, and enterprising young people can easily discover what ADHD symptoms are before approaching a doctor to treat it.

I am still without an Internet connection, hence left wondering when Adderall appeared—and what happened to Ritalin. Ritalin was a run-away best-seller a ways back when we (in the context of our publishing enterprise, Editorial Code and Data) became aware of ADHD while publishing Social Trends and Indicators USA (Vol 3). Data reported in that volume (p. 483) showed the growth in children diagnosed with ADHD and the number of children on Ritalin over the 1975-2000 period.

Back when that volume was published (2003) we noted that the ADHD syndrome explicitly excludes children who have actual physical and brain dysfunction. The syndrome is behavioral. And the academics consulted by the Centers for Disease Control assign its cause to transformations in families, marital instability, inadequate day care (that day care necessitated by economic conditions affecting the family), and poverty. The syndrome first came to be discovered in the early 1970s. We also noted, back then, that Ritalin was a highly controversial drug and often prescribed for children who did not meet the ADHD diagnosis.

Evidently some things have changed, others not, since the early 2000s. Now adults are “treating” a behavioral disorder—without any somatic causes—with prescription drugs. And the drug of choice seems to be a more powerful pharmaceutical. To be sure, looking a growth curves like I’m showing above for Ritalin, Pharma is obviously hell-bent on “discovering” even better cures for what is not really a disease, strictly speaking.

In this context, is it any wonder that performance-enhancing steroids are ripping apart the world of sports? Our culture is addicted to a kind of chemicalization† at every level with drastic consequences. It seems to be good for business—and it seems to make life easier for doctors who reflexively reach for the subscription pad (and more and more, to their frustration, for keyboard) than undertaking the thankless job of fixing at the medical level what has gone awry in the family.
†I use that word here with apologies to Unity Church where the word has a much more complex and arcane meaning.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


The Internet went down minutes after I made the last post yesterday in a process that mirrored an earlier disruption on—well, I cannot determine the actual date because a private blog I keep on household matters was, of course, no more accessible to me than anything else internettish. But the last episode had prepared me for what followed, and I took a deep Stoic breath before I began the inevitable process of telephoning AT&T. The phone still worked. It too had been briefly dead for about five minutes. Then it came back to life. To be sure, I have a cell-phone in reserve, so I might have been able to use it as a substitute—until its battery would have lost its charge—and given that I spent about three hours on the phone, that might have happened. But we did have electricity—and therefore heat. Should electricity have failed as well, we would have been all the way back to 1944 when we heated and cooked with wood in Bavaria just before the war ended. I have a pile of wood in the back yard under snow—but that pile would not have lasted more than a few hours in outdoor temperatures of 18° F.

Internet down therefore serves as a reminder of just how close to the edge we actually live. Our furnace is fed by gas, but it will not function without electricity to spark the gas into fire. Our only wood-burning installation is a fire-place we keep blocked off with plastic sheeting because, ordinarily, it sucks heat from the house. We’ve had several e-free days over the last two years because our utility (Detroit Something —you see, without the Internet I can’t look up its formal name, and I’ve become so careless, because the Internet’s so handy, I don’t bother learning mere names anymore) anyway Detroit Something has been neglecting its maintenance. For that reason we were treated to nightly fireworks—literally huge sparking in overhead wires, accompanied by a dance of smoke—days at a time. But, luckily, that was in summer time.

Now it is the DSL. What do those letters stand for? Haven’t a clue. Can’t look it up. My old print-based technology dictionaries didn’t have to know that acronym when I bought them. The DSL is dead. But I learned on the phone that AT&T is “transiting” to fiberoptics hereabouts, and our sickly DSL may have been getting sickly because of fiberoptic threats. All very confusing to someone who can’t talk to the down-to-earth god called Google. I’m promised speedy help. It will arrive between 12 noon and 4 pm on Monday, February 4. But during a visit to an AT&T store, where I chatted with Philip, the man who has the inside scoop—and did his best to convert me to fiberoptimism—told me that “Lot’s of people come and tell me that the technician came and didn’t have a clue.”

Anyway, blogging continues, because the computer’s still up, Microsoft Word’s still functioning, the lights are on, the furnace just kicked in again, the sump pump also works (hence this basement won’t flood with water). Just in case, however, I’ve located some candles so that, if all else fails, I can still write by candle-light, until the ink freezes in my Sheaffer, and then there are still some very ancient yellow pencils.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Down Mexico-way Monarch butterflies that left their chrysalides last September of thereabouts are beginning to emerge, this month, from a curious state of suspension known as the diapause. The word, from the Greek for “stopping,” means that their normal development stopped as the weather turned cool; they stopped consuming food; their sexual development ended; nonetheless they managed to make the huge trek from our northern climes here all the way down to Mexico. Down there they settled in on trees, in masses, to rest from their voyage and to await Springtime.

It is hard to credit that the grey masses in the center are monarchs—especially when glimpsing some obvious monarchs on the left. A close-up makes what we see here more credible:

Monarchs have an average lifespan, as butterflies, lasting between 2-6 weeks. They produce four generations every year of that length. But in the last, the fifth, generation of every season, they have an “active hibernation,” thus a special kind of diapause. They fly great distances before they hang on trees. This, you might call it the Greatest Generation, persists in the butterfly form for 6-8 months. Pondering this I note the fact that the lovely butterfly stage of these insects exists strictly for reproduction. When some external factor—like a prolonged change in temperature—threatens the completion of that mission, they have work-arounds. The diapause is an example, active hibernation a more extreme form of it.

Some species of butterfly—the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady, to name two already mentioned on this blog—overwinter as adult butterflies. Most others do so as pupae. Our own Black Swallowtails are an example. Two of them (Castor and Pollux, as Brigitte named them), formed chrysalides last September 14, 16 (link). They are still with us—waiting—in a big jar out in the garage. I checked on them this morning to see if the warm spells we’d had a ways back had disturbed their suspension in time. All seemed well. The temperature outside right now is 18° F. I expect it will be late March, early May before they cast off their shells and turn to Organic Life’s Job 1: reproduction.
The first image is from Wikipedia; the trees are called Oyamel. The location is the outskirts of Anagangueo, Michoacán, Mexico. The second image comes from Arizona University (link).