Thursday, May 30, 2013

As in the Past So in the Future?

In 1994 Farrar, Strauss and Giroux published The Coming Plague by science-journalist Laurie Garrett. Brigitte read a review of it the following year and immediately ordered the 750 page tome. Just a year after its publication, it had already had fourteen printings. Garrett had spent a decade researching the book, subtitled “Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” a monumental portrait of one of the Four Horsemen. Garrett won the Pulitzer Prize for Exploratory Journalism in 1996.

Just recently we’d dug out the book for renewed perusal. Yesterday I saw a story on CNN about a new virus—category coronavirus—that has no known treatment yet and, thus far killed 23 of 44 infected (that’s 52 percent). It’s origins are in the Middle East and the condition produced is called Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The virus has claimed the most lives in Saudi Arabia and has already spread to France and the United Kingdom in Europe.

I expected stories in the papers today on this outbreak—but saw nothing at all. Until such things show up in the United States, the media, with the admirable exception of CNN, this time, shrug it off. There are plenty of warning voice—some as distinguished as Garrett’s, others less prominent. One of our own publications Social Trends & Indicators USA, Volume 3: Health & Sickness, published in 2003, featured the following graphic:

I reproduce the first paragraph that came with this illustration:

At the timer when news periodically reaches us that now this bacterium and now that virus have become resistant to our antibiotics or antivirals, it may be useful to look at some diseases that the 19th century would have immediately recognized—and some that stem from Biblical times. The graphic charts actual cases of seven such diseases from 1944 to 1999. They are still with us. We are still getting cholera and the bubonic or pneumonic plague. In 1999, for instance there were 35,600 new cases of syphilis and 17,500 people were diagnosed with tuberculosis; more than 1,600 cases of malaria were documented, up from the year before; 350 new cases of typhoid fever were reported, and more than 100 people came down with leprosy. That year, doctors notified the Centers of Disease Control of fewer than 10 cases each of plague and cholera—but these diseases were beginning to show up in some numbers toward the latter part of this 56-year period—having been absent in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

To which I might add that brand new viruses, such as the most recent variant of MERS, are also busy innovating.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Résumé v. Job Description

A column in the New York Times this morning by Thomas L. Friedman (“How to Get a Job”) once more recalled for me the old, call it hoary, subject of the value of a liberal arts education (link on this blog). That education included such “useless” subjects as logic, grammar, and rhetoric (at the core) and then, added to it, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. I can just feel the mouth of a personnel administrator water reading such word’s on an applicant’s resume. Now the words that actually did cause employers to feel appetites were Stanford, Harvard, and, especially, Harvard MBA. I know of a case where a company wished to hire a marketing manager and put out a single qualification: Harvard MBA. It was a certain kind of, alas, very conventional company. Offering them a black Harvard MBA would not have had a point; such, in the view of that outfit, would not have “fit” with the distribution channel. Offering them an Asian Harvard MBA would have failed as well; it would have introduced a certain threatening superiority that might not have “fit” the management. But enough said. Friedman’s theme is that, these days, it’s not the diploma or what you know, but the skills you have acquired. He thinks that a sea-change is underway: from now on, the successful applicant will have to pass the gauntlet of some online startup that creates tests for the job in question. If you pass it, you’ll be hired. And as for whether or not you are actually human, that is a minor detail.

Believe it—or better, Not. Right now the only hiring, evidently, is for jobs with a thick connection to social networks and the Internet generally. Personnel managers have nothing to do. When, eventually, the economy picks up again, it’ll be back to mass hirings and—the usual profiling.

Friedman’s column, however, does show that the shades of the old liberal arts curriculum are still virtually, if not actually, alive. Friedman quotes a comment by one of the doers and shakers of the New Hiring Model. The man, commenting on the skills of today’s applicants, says: “What surprises me most about people’s skills is how poor their writing and grammar are, even for college graduates. If we can’t get the basics right, there is a real problem.”

Now as for that hoary traditional way of preparing leaders for life, current applicants probably don’t know the word “hoary” at all. The meaning is “grey, white-haired,” therefore old and wise. Not, of course, old, very old, like humanity’s first formal profession.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Iridescent Grackles and Subteen Nest Defenders

Our distraction this 2013 Spring is caused in part by bird-watching and scientific watering of newly laid sod. The watering, in turn, was originally caused by some maintenance to our sewer. That tore up our front yard sufficiently so that the whole of it required renewal.  (But maintenance is good.) This process took a while—what with sod being quite late this year, the landscapers quite over-booked, and so on. Now the huge unsightly gash (with little yellow flag) is healed, our front soil removed, the roots torn out, new black dirt introduced, sod laid. Therefore the watering. It’s tedious work—but it is raining today so that even the blog gets a little attention.

After we dispatched two over-wintering Black Swallowtail butterflies with the first warm days of this season, we hastened to buy, and plant from seed, lots of dill. We have so much of it, every year, that it even grows in the cracks of the driveway—which is fine with us. We take the plants out with a knife and replant them in pots. But while waiting for the butterflies, we have been watching birds.

As I’ve noted a while back, Brigitte discovered a Cardinal nest in our backyard with one fledgling identified. Now our knowledge has grown. There are actually two. One is a boy, one is a girl. Both have learned to fly, but while the boy is up and about a good deal—and is as brightly red as a Cardinal should be, but its little crest is still not sharply visible—the girl is more a stay-at home. At the same time our squirrels are building nests, gathering the materials. We discovered that, in that process, they’re quite willing to grab hold of other creatures’ and carry them away. Yesterday we saw what happens when those nests happen to be occupied.

A squirrel came and headed up toward our Cardinals’ nest. Enormous uproar suddenly. It was hard to make out what was going on. Well, our two Cardinals, brother and sister, making nasty noises, attacked the squirrel with beak and claw. And as it fled, they chased it, coming down at it as it ran on top of the fence for the safety of the garage roof. The girl returned to the nest, but her brother remained, for an while, vigilantly watching for a renewed attack from a power line.

This sort of drama inclines one to spend one’s mornings in the sun, pretending to read. And in that process one sometimes gets to know other species. One of these, resident not too far away, behind the garage of another house, its back to our back, lives a tribe of Common Grackles, technically Quisculus quiscula. In the shade they look quite black, like little crows, but with light they have a wondrously iridescent blue-bronze coloration. Part of yesterday’s Bird Watch included observing a Grackle mother followed by two very fluffy and seemingly much bigger fledglings. She would pick things to eat and then, in turn, fed her children, beak to beak. My image is from Wikipedia (link).

We also discovered, to our amazement, that Cardinals have a lifespan of up to 24 years—and that our fledglings will take a year or more before they are ready to breed.

The Infrastructure Indicator

Whether it is true or not, it was said that Benito Mussolini “Made the trains run on time.” I was reminded of this famous saying when reading the paper this morning (New York Times) and learning that in Pakistan the lights go out for 10 hours a day in major cities and up to 22 hours in rural areas. Never mind that such claims deserve detailed documentation, with pointers to sources; what I can be fairly sure of is that electric power is failing, or shut down, often enough to generate demonstrations—and that the disruptions last a long time. In turn that reminded me of the failure of power in Iraq. An online paper, Al Monitor, reported on April 9 of this year that around-the-clock electricity is still something to be achieved there. Add to this context that we experienced two bridge-failures within days of each other, one near Seattle and one in Missouri south of St. Louis—in wake of which we got statistics on the huge number of bridges that belong to the “endangered” species. We moved to the Detroit area in 1989—but for two decades, earlier, we routinely traveled on I-35W, crossing the Mississippi, where, in August 2007 one of the more spectacular bridge-failures took place.

Do I suffer from Chicken Little syndrome? No. But I am quite interested in cultural indicators. At the same time, I am convinced that all things are linked. Therefore problems with a culture at its more airy-fairy levels, like its thought, its moral grip, its political cohesion, and its financial clouds, will, sooner or later, be reflected in its physical underpinnings—like water, sewers, power, and bridges.

I’ll add as a footnote that I routinely, daily, drove beneath, I don’t know—surely about 50 Detroit bridges every day, commuting to work for 20 years before retirement. In that process I also drove on top of quite a few. The view from below has been—and remains—the most instructive. You can see the erosion of the concrete and the bleeding of re-bars thus exposed to the rusting action of rain. Drive on them or beneath them. In either case, beware. The money is headed for the invisible stratosphere of where Goldman Sachs sits on a throne. Down below the infrastructure crumbles.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tinker, Tailor—and Notes Taker

We watched the last disk of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness working in splendid company. The book was published in 1974, made into the miniseries in 1979; the Cold War was still lingering on, in other words, and the Tenth Crusade had not yet begun. The experience of that series, which I followed up with starting to read an old copy of Smiley’s People (1979), left its mark on my sleeping self. The works of Le Carré serve as reminders of how society operated at certain levels in the twentieth century, best rendered as dark, dark. It occurred to me this morning, shaking off the shadows as the sun labored to shine, that in the very far away future, by contrast, the twentieth will be remembered as a fabulous and magical time owing to the Twins: Technology and Oil.

Another note occurred as we were watching the segment where the “mole” offers an explanation for his treason to Queen and Country to George Smiley. In the 1970s, quite obviously, the great paralysis that had gripped the world with the Capitalist-Commie polarization, lasting from 1945 right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, had temporarily preserved a widespread perception that civilization was still something real—rather than, let us say, a lifestyle choice; and that it mattered which side you were on though both were monstrous. That civilization was in major crisis, and right on the brink of a precipice, was clearly present in Le Carré’s mind. But it still mattered enough to write about. Interesting how, since then, everything has…how should I put it? Well, how everything since has come so visibly unraveled.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lilac Bush Acclimated

Our lilac bush arrived as a little thing on Mother’s Day in 2010. It was then in bloom. Indeed I have a picture of it blooming taken, before it was planted, because a butterfly had landed on it to get some nourishment in the early season. Plants are sometimes seriously traumatized after their passage through the Commercial System to their intended home in the Real World. This happened to our lilac bush. It failed to provide flowers in 2011 and again in 2012, but this year, finally—having grown nearly triple in size—it finally feels at home and this Spring returned to its natural cycle.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Living Laptop?

Since our retirement, roughly—we ignored them altogether during the many decades of our active lives—we’ve gone through relatively brief periods of engagement with crossword puzzles. It all began one time during a late fall vacation near Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes resort. We rented a house there on Glen Lake and used to solve the easy puzzles that came with the local paper which we worked on the lake shore itself with breakfast—and the later, laid out on the sand of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Yes. Michigan has a West Coast too. This madness soon escalated. My Mother’s eightieth birthday was approaching. I decided to make a crossword puzzle for her—and the extended family—of the size and complexity typical of the New York Times Sunday version. In no time at all I was in deep trouble—but Brigitte then joined the effort and we spent much of that vacation—and also some time after coming home again—creating the puzzle. Thus began our “cooperative” approach to this game. The puzzle was a great success—and taught us what it takes to make these wondrous art-for-art’s-sake artefacts.

We entered another period like that a few days ago, having decided to enjoy early spring evenings doing something other than watching movies. Now, of course, in this relentlessly pragmatic era, the pure enjoyment of solving puzzles must be, absolutely must be, justified by such motivations as keeping Alzheimer’s at bay—although, sure enough, some ultra-stupid techno-guru urges the elderly to play computer games instead. Not so for us. We enjoy crosswords—as we enjoy our own Olympic style MyWord (on  sheets of our own creation—with eleven letter words being entirely acceptable along with the shorter ones). We also still play crosswords cooperatively, working on separate sheets of the same game and helping each other.  No ego games here. The pleasure comes when we’ve done the thing with never more help than using an ordinary dictionary.

As in the past so in the present. We are again rediscovering the cunning ways of crossword puzzle makers. Most puzzles are quite easy—if the clues are straight-forward. To make a puzzle difficult, make the clues as deceptively vague as possible. Last night one clue resisted us to the very end. It was “Old laptop instruments.” Such a clue—once it has been penetrated—teaches deeper lessons, namely that most of us, most of the time, have a rigidly limited framework of associations when seeing a word. Laptop, for us, meant a little computer, and we never got past that—until, at last, with the help of other words the answer itself was simply there, on the paper. The cunning crossword maker, in this case one Randolph Ross, had used the word “LYRES” and clued it with the deceptive “laptop” clue. At once I made notes in my still existing Crossword Notebook. Use the clue “A living laptop?” (that question mark is a dead giveaway, of course). And for the answer put in the four-letter “BABY.”

Avaunt, Alzheimer’s! Avaunt!

Some Cardinals are Hatched

One such lives in a little nest built deep inside our by now tree-sized forsythia shrub. Brigitte discovered it the other evening and then, as we alertly watched in the still mildly glowing darkness, we saw its mother coming home and just made out her form bent down, feeding her off-spring. Both mother and chick have brilliantly red beaks. The sex of the chick is still undetermined. I tried my best today with ladder and such, but the nest’s too deep to permit a photograph, hence I bring an image of a “juvenile” from the Internet IBC Bird Collection (link). Having just recently dispatched Castor and Pollux, the butterflies, we are delighted to welcome Cardinals, no less, to Rancho Mariposa. The birds are, formally, Cardinalis cadinalis. Now there is a bioname that’s easy to remember. The song of these birds is stunningly sweet, especially in the gathering dark, very close to us just above our heads, as we sit on these very stained white plastic chairs and the sun is about to set.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Augeas’ Immortal Cattle

Yet another story in the papers of toweringly complex corruption in our financial sector brought to mind the stables of Augeas—and, not coincidentally, the absence, no matter how searchingly one looks, of any figure as potently large as Hercules. But our discussion lead me to look up the story of Hercules’ sixth labor. It had made a vivid impression on me reading it as a child—so much so that the mental images I had then formed were back, pristine. But back in those days an important, and in a way amusing, feature of the story did not register in my young mind—or was, perhaps omitted from the account I read. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “the livestock were divinely healthy (immortal) and therefore produced an enormous quantity of dung.” The emphasis is mine. That had us laughing. All things have a bright and a dark side, you might say. It is good to be immortal in this material dimension—but the consequence appears to be the ability to produce fantastic, towering, gigantic, and presumably ill-smelling mountains of dung. But, as a more humble writer of the modern age has put it, “A river runs through it.”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

You Can’t Stop That Clock

Catching up on printed media all at once after a lag of several days—an almost electric shock accompanies the experience—made me think that we really do have far too many people in the world. The collective consequence of that is there in print. This got me wondering about the current population of the globe. I went to worldometers, one of the population clocks, and took a look.

I measured first how many people accrue to world population in a minute. The number was 144. That number is births net of deaths. In my statistical minute, I noted 249 births and 105 deaths, producing my net population growth. Now that translates to 8,640 net new people every hour, 207,360 every day, and 75.7 million every year. And that clock, when you watch it, is absolutely relentless.

worldometers labels itself “real time world statistics.” Concerning “statistics,” there are two views. One derives from their right use. When used with caution and handled carefully, as if they were dangerous explosives, we get a lens on the vast collective. The other view characterizes the abuse of statistics with a famous phrase: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Which of the two applies to worldometers? Well, censuses of population always appear at a lag of time and, because it takes several months to conduct any census, they’re not even accurate snapshots. But such population clocks more or less accurately reflect change that can be tracked, census to census. So here we’re dealing with a truth—indeed, watching that clock rushing madly along, a dangerous truth.

At the same time, lies and damned lies are there as well. I read today an article which suggests that as homeownership rises, so does joblessness. Some feeble-minded economists have collected data on both and—assuming an entirely untraceable cause and effect relationship—proclaim that homeownership may be a baddy.

In the time I put these words on the screen about 42,000 people have been added to the world’s population. Educating all of these new people is truly a growing burden. It does not surprise me that, as population increases, the average skill of economists is tumbling like the seeds are falling out there today—covering my driveway in a nice mixture of yellows and whites.

Friday, May 10, 2013


A medical day for us had me sitting in the doctor’s waiting room—just observing. The procedure is that you sign in. That involves handing over, every time, one’s driver’s license and insurance card. These are Xeroxed, every time, and filed away. Then, having signed the sign-in sheet, one settles facing a translucent but still opaque glass door where the nurse will appear. When the nurse approaches from the other side, her shadow provides a welcome heads-up. The door then opens and one sees one of five or six different nurses, differently attired but each in uniform, and each is holding a clipboard. This is a large practice. Finally the nurse looks out over the waiting figures and says: “Annemarie?” “Lisa?” “Frederick?” — or something along those lines. After the nurse came and called “Brigitte?” I was left alone. The odd thought then occurred to me. You explain how such thoughts rise. It occurred to me that if Mr. Kipling had been an American and would have needed to visit our Dr. Larose, he would have signed in, would have been carded, and after a reasonable wait, the nurse appearing, as shadow, then as image, would have looked out over those waiting and would have called out: “Rudyard?”

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Innocent Nature

Nature red in tooth and claw? Oh, come come. That’s pure projection. The gardening season is now upon us—draws us outward irresistibly—and hence we encounter a small patch of nature immediately beyond the sunroom door. The same thought always occurs as I then set to work clearing off winter’s layers: Nature’s innocent and so’s the cosmos. The world itself has never fallen. It has always been and still remains absolutely obedient. Then, unless I have to do something drastic, like move a hosta bush a few feet over—which invariably escalates to digging dirt and axe-cutting through buried roots—my mind goes on elaborating…

Hermes had it right when saying, As above, so below. This innocent but demanding realm we know may be a faint mirroring of heavenly vistas. Swedenborg spoke about correspondences between this world and those above. Yes, I need a new cutting shear, my tooth and claw all clogged with wood debris. It makes a kind of temporary order in the untutored jumble of nature in which the only red I see is the color of my quince-bush flowers.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Seasonal Notes

Unusual early warmth last year, an unusual cold spell in 2013, has caused us to spend at least a month marveling at Nature’s variability.  Last year everything began to bloom late in March already; this year the same process began late in April. Spring 2013, however, also brings multiple new phenomena to our late-blooming backyard garden. One of them, already touched upon in the last posting, is that two Black Swallowtail butterflies spent a full seven months and two weeks as chrysalides and then, early this month, both emerged. We were, of course, unsure what gender they were, individually or severally. Brigitte had named them Castor and Pollux. When Castor emerged we took her to be a lady, but learning (certainly at our age), is sometimes missy. It turns out that Black Swallowtails with yellow markings are male; those with white markings female. We had to look up this distinction again. Castor and Pollux, it turned out had been rightly named. Both were males; Pollux arrived on May 5. I show him resting on the same forsythia bush as his earlier and much more energetic brother. Pollux spent hours on that bush before himself taking off—and flying in a contrary direction, the first of many ever to do so; he flew South.

Our quince bush produced voluminous red flowers this spring. They appear at the bottom of the bush rather than at the tip of the branches. We are still investigating what manner of adaptation that represents. And our lilac bush, which is now observing its third spring, finally shows very energetic signs of actually producing flowers—and in volume. Those I will show some other time.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Little Jubilation

May first, a truly warm day—and we saw our second Black Swallowtail butterfly early in the afternoon! And with some jubilation. Let me explain. The first we saw came to our pussy willow tree on wing a while ago—and flew away again after a brief snack on the yellow sweetness of a seed. But this one, one Brigitte had named Castora in the dim past, came outdoors, in a glass jar, carried by a jubilant Brigitte crying, “Look, look!” Yes! Castora had been with us as a chrysalis  since September 14 of last year. With her sister, Polluxia, she spent the winter in hibernation in a glass jar in our dark garage (link). Now, after two weeks and seven months of confinement in a tiny shell, the May sunshine had finally convinced her that it was time to take wing. Which, presently, she did. And we bring a picture of her on our forsythia, itself finally in full bloom. The picture isn’t very sharp, but then my hands were a little shaking from the momentous nature of this occasion—our first ever guiding a butterfly through the darkness of winter.

In the image of the chrysalidae, Castora is on the left. Her sister, who took this from two days later and preferred clinging to a stalk, is still, as this is written on the morning of May 2, “undecided.” But now we hope that she too will soon take off, as Castora did. And yes, as always, flying straight north and high, very high, topping our neighbors still leafless but budding tree…