Friday, March 29, 2013

A Kind of Climate Change

Reading Toynbee’s A Study of History again, closely, after a number of decades shows, even in my highly abridged version (which takes twelve volumes down to two), how detailed Toynbee’s work was and therefore how fine-grained the historical patterns from which he built up his theories of change. Toynbee’s work appeared beginning 1934. Oswald Spengler’s first work became visible in 1918, Pitirim Sorokin’s sociology dates its start to 1937. These works of cyclic history therefore appeared in a period of Western culture Toynbee would have characterized as a Time of Troubles. Toynbee’s language, like that of the others, is scholarly, very dense. The ideas expressed are ultimately quite incapable of being made use of in any meaningful, collective, practical, purposive way even if the people could internalize the meanings presented. The great patterns in history are more akin to climate change than anything else. It’s possible to build up a clear-enough picture of what is happening and what has happened in the past, but moving vast masses of humanity to respond intelligently to the challenge is too daunting a task even for the occasional stellar figure that appears in the realms of action.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Free Education

Well, as they say, nothing is free. But nominally free education is still available in the United States even in these Latter Days. Here are four such institutions. Not only does the qualifying student pay no tuition; in addition room and board are free as well:

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY
U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY
U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD
U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, CT

Students must undergo a qualification process in which they document superior educational achievements up to high school, demonstrate a less directly measurable leadership ability, qualify physically, and meet other requirements such as, for West Point for example, 17 but not yet 23, single status, no pregnancy, and no obligation to support a dependent child or children.

With all qualifications met—and the school still having room for you—you can get your four years of education absolutely free. But, in signing up for it, you commit yourself to serving five years in the military. And that, for some anyway, may mean what might be viewed as modest earnings. Let’s take a look.

A Second Lieutenant earns $34,517 a year, a First Lieutenant $39,769. Assume promotion to First Lieutenant after a year (18 months is more usual). In five years the person then will earn $193,593 or, on average, $38,719.

Now, to be sure, a war may be going on. Working conditions may be hazardous and the salary bumped a tad by combat pay. If all goes well and the graduate survives those obligatory five years of service, the actual cost of the education will be the difference between military pay and some hypothetical salary in the civilian sector. In today’s environment, for some individuals anyway, the difference may be nil or negative, suggesting that some things, given the right circumstances, might be free. And in addition, a job is guaranteed—right after school and also out five years and counting.

To the extent that education in practice, except for very small cohorts of the weird, means preparation for an occupation, the military does the best job of all of our institutions. Something to ponder…

Monday, March 25, 2013

What's Up?

The last post reminded me of a time when we lived in Minneapolis, I think it was. There, on one of my shopping venues, I used to pass routinely by a store that sold maps. One day, displayed in its window, I saw a world map. That it was a world a map was obvious at the first glance, but yet it looked very strange. To have the same experience, I suggest looking at this post on Deceptology (link); for full effect, click on the image.

Having shown the Eiffel Tower at an odd angle, I will now follow up and produce a map of France I discovered on Wikipedia (here); its author is the aptly named “Tyrannus Mundi.”

Odd angles of vision produce the foolishness of God, of which Paul has more to say (1 Corinthians 1:25 et seq.). The art of bending and twisting reality so that it reveals itself more fully is, to be sure, a lot more difficult than turning an image upside down. Teaching drawing by asking the student to copy a picture turned upside down is a well-known technique. I’ve tried it; it works. It works by inhibiting our rigid ways of seeing and thought.

Onward and Upward

This image comes from the splendid collection of wrought iron photographs daughter Michelle took some years ago; indeed, it is the first in that series. Having awakened to a snow-fall this morning, I thought I’d find a snow-covered wrought iron “gate” to mark our passage into the season of Spring this year; but, turns out, there are no snowy views in the collection. Therefore this neat shot with a creative angle.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

“Culture” is Young

It startled me to discover today that the concept of culture, as we now use it, arose, why, just the other day. As we know from “agriculture,” it is rooted in the systematic cultivation of the land. And in that sense the word is already present in the Latin cultura. Cicero is said to have used the phrase cultura animi, thus cultivation of the soul—but the word was not in use as it is with us. That began around 1500, thus in what for me is the Latter Days. Then it meant cultivation through education. It had grown up to mean “the intellectual side of civilization” by 1805. By 1867 it had reached maturity and had come to mean the “collective customs and achievements of a people.” In 1909, W.B. Yeats gave it the following interesting meaning:

For without culture or holiness, which are always the gifts of a very few, a man may renounce wealth or any other external thing, but he cannot renounce hatred, envy, jealousy, or revenge. Culture is the sanctity of the intellect.
     [W.B. Yeats, V. III of Collected Works, a journal entry dated March 7, 1909]

Yeats here is returning to Cicero’s sense, but as that word continued to be used by ever more people, it has expanded on the 1867 meaning more and more and, in our day, has endless tributaries of which pop culture is one and innumerable subcultures yet others. Yeats anticipated something of the kind when he wrote about the “widening gyre” in his “The Second Coming” and observed that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

It strikes me as interesting that in secular times, which look outward rather than within, the collective becomes visible and needs all kind of words to describe it. And culture is one of those.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Cosmic Egg?

News came yesterday of the completion of another survey of cosmic radiation, this one begun in 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA) using the Planck satellite. The image shown in the papers is the by now familiar cosmic egg we’ve become accustomed to since images were stitched together from the NASA/WMAP (Wilson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) launched in 2001. The latest is best, of course. It has a higher resolution. The age of the cosmos has been tweaked a little: older by 80 million years.

It may have been the illustrations—invariably showing an egg in a surrounding black field. I got to wondering. Is the cosmos really an egg? The answer to that last. First, what are we looking at?

The best way to picture this survey is to imagine that we had a camera able to look through rock. Let’s put it at the center of the earth. It will be able to take photographs of the earth’s surface, its lenses so adjusted that it would see the surface but nothing beyond it. Well, the Planck satellite does just that. It is up in space with its camera able to swivel and move in all directions so that it can take slice-after slice of the night sky. Its lenses are adjusted to pick up only microwave radiation.

To map the results from either of these projects onto a two-dimensional surface requires projection. Let’s recall briefly the Mercator projection. The globe is placed in a tube sized so that it will touch the equators. The image of the earth’s surface is projected onto the tube. The tube is then cut and flattened. The Mercator, and all similar projections, stretch the map in the southerly and northerly directions, therefore deforming distances, shapes, and measurable areas. Alas, no matter what we do in mapping three-dimensional objects in Flat Land, distortion is a given.

World maps and cosmic maps make use of another, the Aitoff projection. That’s what we see when contemplating the cosmic egg. It is named after David A. Aitoff (1854-1933), a Russian geographer. His aim was to produce good global maps, his object being to preserve what he could of shapes and areas while minimizing the space the global image would take up. He began with what is called an equidistant azimuth scale. Such a scale preserves true distances, so that distance on the map is proportional to distance on the ground. But Azimuthal projection significantly distorts continental shape at the borders of the map. Aitoff’s solution, which is, note well, applicable only to spheres, has distortions in all of the measurements, but all of these are minimized. Hence his scale is called a good compromise. He makes his projection by re-scaling the map so that his central meridian is only half as long as his equator. The whole shape of the globe is thus distorted; we get an egg for a sphere; but the contents are reasonably true to reality. Here is the earth mapped using the Aitoff scale:

Let me next deal to the black stuff that surrounds the usual depictions of our cosmic egg. Needless to say, no camera ever took a picture of Nothing. The Planck satellite no more saw the end of the cosmos than our imaginary earth-centered camera could ever see the sky; it only sees hard matter. Therefore we don’t really know what lies beyond the visible. We assume there is nothing there because we believe in Hubble and the Big Bang.

So is the universe an egg? Well, I had a chuckle this morning. In the process of trying to hatch this egg, I came upon two stories (link, link). They suggests that, no matter what the Planck saw or didn’t see, NASA thinks that the cosmos is, even if only ever so slightly, ellipsoid. Well, maybe Ahura Mazda had it right after all….
My images come from ESA and Wikipedia (link).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Spring Marker

Spring must not be permitted to arrive without notice—although it seems still to be obdurately Winter out there. Last year the forsythia and willow were blooming on the day of the Vernal Equinox (that came yesterday); this year not even a hint of color from either. The temperature outdoors this morning is 19° F (-7° C); last year it was 55° F, 13° C. Weather Underground (link) tells me that today is the coldest it has been in a decade on this day. Patience.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Beaver Wars Virtualized

It is difficult to believe from today’s perspective, but over-hunting beaver in the Hudson river valley, where the Iroquois were dominant, started a brutal 62-year war as the Iroquois pushed ever westward in attempts to control the trade in beaver pelts in great demand in Europe. To the one side was the Iroquois Confederation, backed by the British and the Dutch. To the other more than a dozen other Indian nations, largely of the Algonquin language group, backed by the French and inhabiting the Great Lakes region. The war began in 1640 and ended in 1701—when the Iroquois were more or less victorious and made a treaty with the English (Nanfan treaty) granting them rights to the Great Lakes region inhabited by their enemies. I show a map of the western Beaver Hunting Grounds, arising from that treaty. Sure enough, we now live right in the center of it—and at a spot most densely populated by the unfortunate beaver.

A quite excellent history of that period, illustrating how broad phrases like “beaver wars” are almost without meaning when the details are viewed, is Wilderness Empire (1969, Little Brown), by Alan W. Eckert. Before our history began, there was lots and lots of confusing pre-history, reading it instructive.

Why is the beaver—and the seventeenth century North American Wilderness—suddenly in my focus? There is an element of what the Germans call “gallows humor” behind it. I read a story in the New York Times this morning. The Federal Trade Commission reached an agreement with three retailers (Neiman Marcus, Dr., and Eminent) under which they will, in future, refrain from using real animal fur as portions of articles of clothing made of faux fur. As of now, when you buy genuine artificial fur, you can be sure that no animal has suffered in making the soft collar that gently brushes your neck.

Fake or faux fur was introduced in 1929. It wasn’t really fake, actually, but made of shorn alpaca hair—like wool is made from live sheep fur. Never mind. With polymers, later, the fake fake became real fake fur. Back in the 1930s, the idea was to find a lower-priced substitute for the real thing, what with wildlife disappearing all over the globe now. The Iroquois just needed to travel west. We must travel into the virtual dimensions of artificiality.

The consoling (?) thought comes. What comes around, goes around. There may yet be (give it 400 years or so) a revival of the beaver in North America. And in that future, new beaver wars. As that old curmudgeon, Darnay the Younger, once said: Excurrat olei mundi.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

As Below So Not Above

When I think back to my childhood, and then trace ordinary, daily life forward from that time to this, the striking thing about it is that the basic arrangements have remained unchangeably the same. We’ve lived in single family houses or apartments. There have always been trees, bushes, gardens near; if we had no garden immediately next to the house, then plants grew on balconies and in our window sills. Turmoil, disturbances, flight, immigration—such as now plague Syria? They rapidly resolve into camps where tents stand in rows and the children play on puddle-pocked “streets” between tents. Life may be miserable, but the basics are still there. Now in my childhood and later, too, other greater turmoils in the greater world: great wars, monetary disasters, economic upheavals, political tensions, cold wars, wrenching transformations of whole “realms”—such as the collapse of communism. Vast changes in the arts, in the media of communications. Enormous changes in tooling—beyond the house. In the house we still cut carrots with a knife. The pot still cooks the soup.

The woodcut I show, of Albrecht Dürer’s St. Michael Fighting the Dragon, has long been a favorite of mine because, in a quite memorable image, it summarizes the contrasts between ordinary daily life—and the life of the culture in which we live. It does so spatially. Down below is a peaceful scene of the “ordinary.” See the houses, see the trees? But up above rages the great battle of the human spirit. Up above there is a furnace where raw ore is being melted and sorted into dross and the pure metal. Awesome image. I’ve shown it before on Borderzone. It deserves another look and contemplation.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Trace it to the Tusci

This post derives from what began as a funny wake-up dream. In it I was back in the Army, but in my dream-army, soldiers moved about on skateboards. Then, quite suddenly (and this can happen in dreams), there was a radical change in uniforms—but I did not get the word at once. As I was skateboarding down a hall, an oddly dressed Chaplain stopped me, forbade me to use my skateboard, and accused me of atheism. Obediently I bent down, picked up my skateboard, and went outside on foot. Big surprise. All soldiers now wore black boots and breeches, the breeches held up by leather suspenders that formed an X across their chests; they wore leather jackets and shakos on their heads. These were American soldiers? Surely not! But there they were. Instantly I knew I was in trouble—but I still had three years to serve. What to do?  I would desert, I thought! The thought was strong enough to wake me up.

Dreams usually resolve into a dominant thought, therefore I waited for that thought to announce itself. And in a moment it came. “There are worse things than decadence—and fascism is one of them.” I was reading the paper minutes later and saw, without surprise, that the Cossacks are seeing a rebirth in Russia (front page, bottom fold). Yes, without surprise. Sometimes one dreams the immediate future. And the immediate past: and the fasces of fascism fit into yesterday’s discussion of heraldry.

The Tusci of my title inhabited north-western Italy when the Romans arrived, and Tusci was the Latin rendition of their name, the Etrusci a variant. Their realm is till called Tuscany; Florence is its largest city. The bundled rods, sometimes with, sometimes without an ax embedded in the center, was their symbolic creation and, probably, the oldest political symbol in the Western world.

It is an ambiguous image, to be sure. Through unity, power. How that unity is achieved—that is the question. For all I know it might have been one of the earliest images of rule by the people. Meanwhile, gradually, it has become ever more associated with unsavory dictatorship, fascism, in that “rods,” certainly in nature, do not cling like that. You need straps to hold them so tightly.  And the tighter the bands, the stronger the unity. Further, fear is a very efficient restraint. Realm after realm, as it has risen in power, has used the symbol in one way or another, not least ours. We find crossed fasces in the U.S. National Guard’s insignia; they feature spears rather than axes at their center. And a close look at the Lincoln Memorial shows Abe Lincoln seated in a chair fronted on either side by fasces. As for me, I prefer the Phrygian cap.

I must dream on, of course, Benito, but I certainly hope that some of my dreams will not come true.
My source is Wikipedia (link). The National Guard insignium comes from the National Guard (link).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pop Generations

A post on Siris today reminded me again that culture will tend to shape our thought although demography has its influence. Brandon (link) comes to the defense of Generation X. He startled me a little. I’d always thought that members of that generation were, like, way more somehow “sane” than members of the Boom (my own children, born at the tail of it, excepted). But then I don’t follow popular culture.

The naming of generations and when they are supposed to have started or ended, has, however,  always interested me. The names refer to collective experience and tend to be coined by writers, be they journalists or novelists. And the names stick around because…? Well, because the people of that generation nod and say yes. Mine is the Silent Generation, and I’ve always nodded. After all that? What else can you be?

The dates, here and below, refer to the years in which each generation was born. The Silent is dated, by nebulous guardians of culture, to 1925-1945.

Gertrude Stein named The Lost Generation (1883-1900), the one that fought World War I. I also favor Robert Graves’ take on that time expressed in the title of his memoir, Good-Bye to All That. Hemingway echoed Stein.

The generation that fought World War II has come to be known as The Greatest (1901-1924)—but I don’t remember it being called that until fairly recently; it is a retrospective naming. The Silent got its name from Time Magazine, the Baby Boom (1946-1964) from the Washington Post. The Boom, however, was a notable demographic upsurge.

Generation X’s name originated with two books, the first a photo essay by Robert Capa, the second a novel by Douglas Coupland. Dates for the GenXers are a little fuzzy—no consensus. It must have begun in 1965 and ended, according to some, in 1981. The X is supposed to signify the unknown, as in “Who knows?” Who knows what’s coming next?

After that came Gen Y, a name bestowed by Ad Age (we are declining). No poetry here. It is also called the Millennial Generation because, starting in 1982, it saw its last birth on the last day of 2000. It’s also called the Echo-Boom, the generation born to members of the Boom; on that more in a moment. The next one over, the current new generation being born, has a sort of place-holder name, Generation Z. Or might we speculate that Z ending the alphabet, signals the last generation that will die during the final sputters of the Fossil Age?

Now a look at demographics. In the graphic I provide a century’s worth of data on birth rate beginning in 1909, thus toward the tail of the Greatest, and showing parts of GenZ. The demarcation lines I show for the last two groups are dotted because the culture’s guardians are not sure about the dating.

This turns out to be an interesting picture. I note first that the Baby Boom, at is very peak, is only 1 point higher than the Greatest Generation at its lowest point shown in this series. It would be nice to see what the nineteenth century looked like. Maybe the data are there. The Boom is remarkable only in light of the birth rate’s rather sharp decline during the Silent Generation. And since then, despite Hispanic immigration, the rate has been sliding ever lower. The Baby Boom Echo, read GenX, is not much of an echo—if measured by birth rate. The slide from the Boom suggests, in turn, that as demography influences culture, so also culture influences demography. And culture, in the last three generations, seem not to have been “in the mood.”
My numbers come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital and Health Statistics, multiple files, lots of keying in Excel. The definition of a “generation” is, as it were, birth-to-birth, from the birth of the mother to the birth of her child. Some average that to 25, others to 30 years. Cultural or pop generations, as shown above, are certainly shorter.

Added later: I’ve added a post on LaMarotte (link) which takes the graphic shown here back to 1800.

Friday, March 15, 2013

That Cap in the Coat of Arms

Now and then I remember the delights of heraldry—and its wondrous language. Today I feature the coat of arms of Argentina, the birthplace of our new pope, Francis, taken from Wikipedia (link). The heraldic description of it, also from that source, is as follows:

A Sun of May or. An oval party per fess bleu celeste and argent; the two shaking hands in base come together to hold a pike with a Phrygian cap gules in chief. The whole surrounded by a wreath of laurel vert and tied with a banner.

That Sun of May is  “or” or golden. The phrase “party per fess” means an oval divided horizontally in the center. “Bleu celeste” is sky blue, “argent” is silver, in heraldry often rendered as white. The Phrygian cap, of which later, is “gules,” meaning red; “in chief” means high. “Vert” stands for green. Now as for that cap…

Phrygia was once what now is the western part of Turkey, with the Black Sea above, the Mediterranean Sea below. The cap symbolizes liberty—the reason why it found a place in Argentina’s heraldry. Among the Greeks it used to symbolize non-Greek and therefore barbarian regions, among the Romans liberty; it was a cap worn by freedmen. Later it became a symbol in the French Revolution. Turns out that the cap appeared, also held on a stick, held by an image of Liberty on a nineteenth century American dollar coin. It is also to be found on other coats of arms as well: that of Cuba, Nicaragua, and one of Brazil’s state, Santa Catarina.

Being a descendant of an ancient court jester, it occurs to me that the Phrygian cap is also a clown’s cap. Only people who treat the world with a sense of humor may be said to be truly free. Our own family’s coat of arms, alas, features a man with a cap that has four up-standing points rather than one leaning one—else I would add it to my Phrygian list.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

To Eschew is Not to Chew

The Wall Street Journal this morning has as its subhead to its lead story the following: Catholics’ Selection Of Pope Francis Eschews Tradition. Quite a mouthful. My oldest big Webster’s defines eschew as follows: To avoid, as something wrong or distasteful; to abstain from; to keep one’s self clear of; to shun. So why did the WSJ not use one of the headline words like shun, avoid, or side step? Did the impenetrable mystery of a closed enclave suggest a mysterious word? I do honestly wonder how many people readily understand that word—or, for that matter, two others of the same ilk: eschatology and escheat.

English for me was the fourth language I encountered (not counting Latin), hence I once looked it up and discovered that it links, by way of Old High German, sciuhen (“avoid, escape”) to the common German word scheuen (to fear, avoid) or scheu, which means the same feeling as “shy.” In Old English that same word was sceoh. As you can see, we have a plain old and well-known Germanic word native to English already. Catholics’ Selection of Pope Francis Shies from Tradition. But there was that Norman Invasion, don’t you know. And therefore we got our eschew from Old French eschiver; that’s where that leading e comes from. It modifies the Old Frankish, skiuhan, which sounds a lot like sciuhen. And that e? Well, that’s the Latin part, echoing ex-, “out of,” and in this case “away from.”

Eschatology is one of those words I used to look up every other year when younger; as I’m plowing deeper into my seventies, the word has come to yield its meaning instantly. It is the science of final things, the last things, a ways back four things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. The e there meant “beyond.” And escheat? It’s the feudal word from which we get “cheat,” meaning to do someone out of something valuable—or, extended to marital relations, to violate one’s vows. The root is Latin, excadere, the ex meaning “away,” cadere “to fall.” Something that “falls away,” more precisely something that “reverts.” In feudal times land granted by some lord to a family could revert back, escheat, to the lord if the male line died out or the family could not maintain its fees. Survivors were, and felt, cheated.

Now to deal with my headline. Chewing comes, not surprisingly, from a Proto-Indo-European root, *gyeu-. We’ve been chewing for a long time. By the time Old English came to be spoken, that root had yielded ceowan. If you pronounce that c as a k, it is easy to see why Germans to this day engage in kauen. Which means that when we are eschewing something, we’re definitely not engaged in chewing—unless by sheer coincidence.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

White Smoke

At just a few minutes after 2 p.m. today, as Brigitte and I were watching CNN, smoke began to issue from a temporary chimney above the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The smoke was white and hence we knew: Habemus Papam. Media speculation went on for just about an hour before, at last, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, the senior cardinal deacon of the Church announced the Pope’s name: Pope Francis. Until this event, he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were both immensely pleased by this choice. And it happened on the perfect day, for Ghulflings: the 13th. Bergoglio was also ordained on the 13th, December 13, 1969. Multiple firsts surround him: the first pope born outside of Europe (not counting Peter); the first Jesuit—and a Jesuit who chose St. Francis’ name as his, the first ever Francis. On a more personal note, he is also the first pope ever who is younger than we are. He was born on December 17, 1936; I was  then a baby five months old. We both send him blessings and prayers…as the caravan marches on.

My image is a snap from an ITV YouTube video available here. Too bad that none of the three seagulls, who had amused us for two hours, one after the other, as we waited for the conclusion of the last, of five, votes stuck around for the smoke. Perhaps we were watching, glued to the screen, because we’d had an intuition this was it. And Brigitte, whose second sight is sharper than mine, had actually guessed whom the College of Cardinals would choose. But as often happens with her, she hasn’t the faintest how she knew…

Added Later: Alas, I'm not well-informed about papal history. Therefore I repeated, without thought, the notion that Pope Francis is the first non-European pope after Peter. Herewith a corrective from the Washington Post (link).

The Good Robot

The good robot will have three functionalities. One is a sensory system that conveys what is happening outside it fully and accurately. The second is a logical structure within able to “understand” outer events correctly. The third is a motor system, moved by the logical structure, which will enable it to act correctly, thus avoiding “dangers” and realizing “values.”

Are we good robots? It seems that we are. Our sensory systems bring us the outside world without distortion, more or less “straight.” To be sure, we have some problems at dawn or dusk or in the night—and fire hydrants may look like dogs if, say, some discarded cardboard box is leaning up against it. We are fast. And because we are, it is very difficult to draw sharp lines between our perceptions and our reactions. But at least at the level of ordinary experience what comes in is neutral. What we perceive may be interpreted as threatening or attractive, but those qualities arise from within. They follow the perception at a tiny lag in time. In turn our actions or inactions to this stimulus are sequentially last.

Imagine next what would happen if the input were distorted. This can happen if the sensory apparatus is defective or comes to be modified by drugs. Suppose that our senses were managed by another person—and that that person had something to gain or lose by how we interpreted the incoming signal. The reason why our inputs are always just “the facts, Mam, nothing but the facts” is because we are—a good robot. The design is optimal. It mutes the same old and draws attention, always, to change, the unusual—the moving, the too hot, too cold, too sharp, too dim, too bright. Otherwise it is neutral.

Now our modern Media are our only organ for sensing the Great Collective. Alas, they’re managed by other people. And these people have incentives to distort the signal in ways that will benefit them. Minimally they have to earn income to support the services they provide, and they are in competition—whereas, in us, different senses, like touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste are flawlessly organized so that only the intensity of a sensation will cause us to prefer one over another sense. “What is that evil smell. Where does it come from?!” And we’re on our feet—even if we’re watching a very tense mystery.

To be a great collective robot’s sensory system, the Media must deliver news, if nothing else, as objectively as possible. But that’s only possible if there is a unity of vision out there too. Reforming the Media, so that they deliver only the facts, Mam, without slant, clever choice, and interpretation appears, ultimately, an impossibility. We’re individuals, not cells in a Great Collective. Therefore, in the case of watching or reading the Media, what comes in is a distortion—and yet another functionality must be cultivated before we can permit ourselves to react. We must develop and apply a truth filter. No robot has that, alas, be it good or bad. But we do.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Where Do Bodies End?

I recall once long ago reading a piece, of the scientific sort, in which the author pointed out that discovering where our bodies end (or start) is rather difficult—provided we have sufficiently accurate measuring instruments. Some of the air that surrounds us will soon be incorporated as flesh and blood as we breathe it in. Some of what we breathe in is dust. Does it become our body? Or should it be segregated, at least statistically, as Not Me?

When tonight I take out our garbage, and it sits on the curb awaiting pickup, it remains, manner of speaking, our property; indeed I may not put it out until after 6:30 or the city could give me a citation. But we’ve already let go of it. When I breathe out the spent breath, stripped of oxygen, it remains around me, for a while anyway, except in a strong wind outdoors.

We’re surrounded by two auras minimally—the more or less solid kind of smells (read chemicals) and dried skin and hair being shed; the other is heat radiating from us, and if the right instrument is used, the heat is quite high as it flows from ears and eyes and other openings.

Who can draw the precise border between skin and clothing when these two phenomena interact so closely? And then there are those empires of one-celled creatures that cohabit this structure, my body, with me. When some tribes of nations of that empire are absent, I cannot digest my food. Some bacteria, airborne away from my body, enter other people’s by contact or by indrawn breath. (This is getting gross, and I apologize, but it is so.) In places frequented by people, bodies, in a sense, certainly at their aural extensions, mingle. And we do shake hands and sometimes hug. Attend a crowded concert. Visit a state fair where the bodies of farm animals share the space. Perceived by means of exaggerated science fiction senses, we are walking (sipping extra large cups of sugared soda, yes even in New York City still), we are as it were swimming through an ocean of shed skin, hair, bacteria, chemicals, heat, aerated sweat moisture, and discarded breath.

All this is objectively true. Very expensive experiments would prove it so. And as immediately outside us—so also deep within. We feature what is known as a microbiome made up of many nations and tribes of archaea, bacteria, and fungi (see illustration of just the cohabitants of our skin from Wikipedia link). Which illustrates that, even in quite banal and ordinary circumstances, our take on reality is merely probabilistic. What we are, as bodies, is virtually unmappable except in continental detail. Yet when it comes to us, to the me writing this, and never mind the bodily tooling that is keying these immortal words, that me is not locatable at all, not even with electron microscopes.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Core of Real Reform

During an exchange about the media—specifically why it is that quite creative series almost inevitably “jump the shark” (we consider X-Files to be an exception)—Brigitte mentioned the National Conference for Media Reform; it is coming up in Denver (April 5-7, 2013). I got curious about that. It turns out that this conference is the fifth in a series of which the first was held in 2003, coinciding with the foundation of an advocacy group called Free Press. Free Press was founded by media scholar Robert W. McChesney, a contributor to The Nation, John Nichols, and an executive, Josh Silver; Silver is the CEO of another foundation, United Republic, the mission of which is to combat corporate influence over government policy.

A long introduction, above, to what is just a thought that arises in this connection. The thought is that real reform must always begin from within. I call it real because, when it is successful, such a turn-about works. When “reform” takes the form of advocacy, pressure, or persuasion, it has another face: it is the exertion of force aimed at the other party. In effect it’s an attack. It is called “reform” only because those who are exerting force are too weak to bring about change in a straight-forward manner. Reform from outside is most effective when the reform is delivered by a Napoleon or, say, the Chinese government. Do this—or else.

I never tire of repeating this—a fundamental lesson I learned from Arnold Toynbee: Any social movement in a wrong direction will constellate another movement in the opposite direction—and it, too, will be wrong. Toynbee applied this to decadent societies; they develop backward looking (archaistic, as he called it) and forward looking (futuristic) polarizations. But the only solution is to rise above both, thus to view reality from a transcending position. “Transcendence” here is equivalent to “Faith.” Genuine reform, arising from within an institution or a grouping, like the media, corresponds to transcendence. Wrong action and reaction merely produce chaos. And when chaos spreads, reform from the outside will certainly come—but reform from within is the real solution. It’s a law, as Brigitte says. And so it is.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Feeding the Hungry: The Micro Level

The darker the shading the deeper the poverty.
I’ve just posted some numbers of hunger in America on LaMarotte. For a bit, in the next month or so, we’ll hear a great deal on this subject because a documentary, with Jeff Bridges in the lead, titled A Place at the Table, will make the subject current. Then in will fade again. This is a dreary subject, and having come to the end of my post, the only answer I could think of, in the context of “what do we do about this,” was that we should give more to our charities. Brigitte had already produced a list a couple of days ago.

The numbers at the macro level have a dismal sort of feel. Here I thought I’d point to how things work at the macro level. One of our old, old friends is the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP). It serves the central area of the Appalachian Region where poverty is quite astonishingly high (see map, courtesy of the Appalachian Regional Commission). CAP operates the Grateful Bread Food Pantry, located in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, Rockcastle County. Just in the first half of 2012, the pantry served, on average, 2,057 residents of the county, equal to 51.6 percent of those living there in poverty. CAP reported, in October of 2012, receiving a $15,000 donation from The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels toward the purchase of a new 8x10-foot walk in freezer, purchased with that money—and additional donations of $5,660 from people who support CAP, like Brigitte and me. That’s how feeding the hungry works at the micro level. Here is hope that A Place at the Table will inspire many, many to become habituated to donating more; that seems to be the only way; the collective is failing us.

This also permits me, parenthetically, to record here that I am an official Kentucky Admiral. Never mind how that came about. Long story. The certificate is there, somewhere, if someone wishes to challenge me. Meanwhile, instead of belatedly buying myself an admiral’s cap, I’ll send its price to…CAP.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Year of Our Lord 7DD

It was Goethe who said, “He who is ignorant of foreign languages knows not his own.” In a way that applies also to numbers, but perhaps with less of a bite. He who only knows decimal notation will miss out on some fun. Those for whom the accessibility to computers became possible thanks to the original Apple—and who were drawn into that puzzle—will have learned at least binary and then hex notation as well. Those who went deeper also ultimately mastered octal—which was in use (maybe still is) in some Hewlett-Packard midsized computers.

The Year of Our Lord above is rendered here in hex, a 16-digit system. The annotation runs from 0 to 9 in numbers; 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 are rendered by A, B, C, D, E, and F. F is the highest digit in hexadecimal notation—much as 9 is in the decimal. Sixteen is rendered in hex as $10. That dollar signs is used to indicate hexadecimal notation.

Here is that year in three different notations:

Value of Column
In Hex
Value in decimal
The year in hex
The digits in decimal
Translated into decimal (e.g., 7 x 256, etc.)
The columns added
In Octal
Value in decimal
The year in octal
Translated into decimal (3 x 512 etc.)
The columns added
In Decimal
The year in decimal
Actual values
The columns added

Note that the progression from column to column is the same in each language: 1, 10, 100, 1000. But they have different values as we switch mathematical tongues. Fun for the nerdy. Not that I recommend anyone dating a check today March 9, 7DD—or March 11, 3735 (that 11 is really a 9 in octal). But if you’re a natural trouble-maker, you might wish to do so—and then have a very spirited argument about the legitimacy of using other than decimal systems—with spicy comments about the decay of our educational system—as the sales clerk, if she notices it at all, rolls her eyes.

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women’s Day

Our New York Times did not arrive this morning, but Google’s Graphic informed me of something I did not know about: March 8 is International Women’s Day and has been celebrated since the beginning of the twentieth century. The first such day in the United States fell on February 28, 1909, sponsored by the Socialist Party of America. Thereafter it was celebrated on different days in different countries, not least March 8. It has been uniformly observed on March 8 since 1977 after a United Nations General Assembly proclamation, that year, of March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Let me not to the celebration of woman admit impediments.”

There is also an International Men’s Day, held on November 19 since 1999. It is a day that I intend to observe, now that I know of it, only by benign neglect.

The image I reproduce here (from Wikipedia link) shows a poster for Women’s Day in 1914, in Germany; it was also celebrated on March 8. The slogan is “Go for Women’s Right to Vote.” The imagery is commie red; it looks dated now. Since those muscularly militant days this event has been softened and dressed into an expression of feminism. February 19, 2013 was the 50th anniversary of the appearance of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan—an event somewhat less dated than gigantic red flags. But, listening to some of the coverage of that anniversary, the recurring observation I’ve picked up is that not enough has changed. Women are not equally present in the visible places—in politics, at the top of corporations. And, as I’ve been noting, from time to time, for decades now, women’s compensation still lags that of men, not least in such professions as law and medicine.