Sunday, June 30, 2013

Four Quarks for Muster Mark

Came news the other day I heard on the radio out shopping that somebody had discovered a molecule-like thing with four quarks—whereas in physical reality, until recently anyway, the max was three, the minimum two, the three appearing in protons and neutrons, the two in pions and kaons in cosmic rays.

Reminded of that this morning, I went looking and found the story in a Nature press release here. The discovery was made at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing by the Belle Collaboration using a particle collider in Tsukuba, Japan.

The name of this elementary particle was introduced by Murray Gell-Mann. He chose a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, pleased by the number three; it is the number of quarks in every atom. The novel itself is written in the poetic wirr-warr that language is when it is heard—rather than read on paper. I’ve managed to find the actual quote (here), and it sounds to me like Mister Mark was buying beer—by the quart. But then my ears ain’t used to Irish-English:

      Three quarks for Muster Mark!
    Sure he hasn't got much of a bark
    And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.
    But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn't un be a sky of a lark
    To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
    And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmer-
        stown Park?
    Hohohoho, moulty Mark!
    You're the rummest old rooster ever flopped out of a Noah's ark
    And you think you're cock of the wark.
    Fowls, up! Tristy's the spry young spark
    That'll tread her and wed her and bed her and red her
    Without ever winking the tail of a feather
    And that's how that chap's going to make his money and mark!

Delights me when something really new happens in physics. I might even live long enough to see someone discover the missing graviton (see this earlier post on the subject).

Friday, June 28, 2013

Up Close and Personal

Heaven is high and the emperor is far away. Never mind the historical roots of this Chinese saying—or how it was once used and understood. I’m after the flavor of it in its more positive sense—namely how we ought to be able to experience governance. In our own day and age, and precisely because governance is supposedly rising up from the people—and therefore millions must be persuaded to give power to the would-be rulers—heaven is oppressively low and the emperor is up close and personal. All this is supposedly a marker of our freedom; but it now appears that the only real use of freedom is to engage in politics. Strikes me that the Chinese saying also arises from freedom. It is most likely to be felt when heaven is high and the emperor distant.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The New Normal

One of the fascinating by-products of world-wide media reporting, particularly TV reporting, is the “institutionalization” of all kinds of changing behaviors. Seeing what others are doing motivates some viewers to do the same things: after all, TV coverage in a way sanctions what it carries: it is reported, therefore important. Those engaged in the behavior achieve visibility. Secondary phenomena, e.g. the formation of activist groups, say, by people who’ve lost children to mass shootings in a school, are also at least temporarily publicized. What advocates say, how they behave, become models for others. Thus unusual events become usual; when the next one arises, patterns of reaction are already present, ready to be imitated.

Riotous public assemblies of the Arab Spring variety, mass killings and their aftermaths, and the appropriate ways to handle celebrity scandals or natural and man-caused disasters (hurricanes, floods, oilspills) are relatively new symptoms of cultural collapse that are now becoming routine, meaning institutionalized. Work teams are formed, procedures are perfected, checklists get prepared. When the next one threatens, everyone is ready—not least the media.

Less noted are broader movements taking place more slowly. But institutionalization is at work in those areas as well. They take the form of naming a phenomenon and repeating the name endlessly until the troubling matter, once unusual, becomes familiar, indeed routine—and the status of those affected solidifies into a kind of “things as they now are.” One example is the single-parent household. In 1980 19.5 percent of all households were single-parent households; in 2008, 29.5 percent were single-parent (source). Or take childbearing by unmarried women. In 1980 18.4 percent of all children were brought into the world by unmarried women; in 2010 it was 40.8 percent (source). Some speak of “life-style choice,” others of “poverty.” Whatever the cause of this very odd slide from traditional arrangements, institutionalization smoothes out the rough edges in an age where the only value system is that of broad public acceptance.

In the coverage of the Supreme Court’s rulings on two gay-marriage cases yesterday, I noted with raised eyebrows the use of a new phrase by pro-gay proponents. It was “The right to marry.” No qualifiers added. The process of institutionalization at work. Aha! I muttered. Here is a change—soon to be on every lip. But it is a curious phrase in a day and age when marriage, at least as it was once defined, is clearly if only slowly heading toward obsolescence—at least as measured by statistics.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Yahoo (Since 1726)

I could frequently distinguish the word Yahoo, which was repeated by each of them several times; and although it was impossible for me to conjecture what it meant, yet, while the two horses were busy in conversation, I endeavoured to practice this word upon my tongue; and as soon as they were silent, I boldly pronounced Yahoo, in a loud voice, imitating at the same time, as near as I could, the neighing of a horse; at which they were both visibly surprised, and the gray repeated the same word twice, as if he meant to teach me the right accent; wherein I spoke after him as well as I could, and found myself perceivably to improve every time, though very far from any degree of perfection. Then the bay tried me with a second word, much harder to be pronounced; but reducing it ‘to’ the English orthography, may be spelt thus—Houyhnhnms.
 Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships

One of the downsides of a fading liberal education is that fewer and fewer people are even aware of Johnathan Swift (1667-1745), a harsh Irish satirist and clergyman. And even those who’ve had such an education tend to forget. Hence this post was inspired by Brigitte musing aloud, seeing a Yahoo ad in the paper: “I wonder where the word comes from?” To be sure the careful movie-goer might see the name as the credits roll by. That’s because, while Swift’s forgotten, his work, Gulliver’s Travels, lives on. Its most recent rendering has been a 2010 movie. Alas, it has been modernized—and only includes Gulliver’s adventures in the land of Lilliput. Stopping there, the movie only includes Part I of the entire tale. And the yahoos appear in the country of the Houyhnhnms in Part IV. The Houyhnhnms are intelligent, highly cultured horses who rule over a very primitive, dirty, savage, and hairy tribe of creatures; they very much resemble Gulliver himself except for the fact that he is wearing clothes. The quote above is the first mention of Yahoo in the narrative itself. Gulliver has not yet learned the language. And the two noble steeds are, evidently, discussing him, wondering what kind of strange yahoo he is.

As a culture decays, the serious tales of its long history turn into fairy tales—or, if the technology has just been advancing, into science fiction. But much is lost in the process. Now arguably Gulliver’s Travels suggests, not at all subtly, that in the world as it exists (or, for Swift, existed in the early eighteenth century), it is far more pleasing to have intercourse with horses than with people, given what people are. But those parts of the tale that underscore this bitter conclusion are not shown.

Swift, by the way, also pioneered an early version of a modern movie, Soylent Green (1973). It took the form of what he called A Modest Proposal (1729). In it he suggests that impoverished Irish families should sell their children to rich Englishmen to be served up as food. The young, one imagines, might taste better than the old folks of Soylent Green who were required to report for their final disposition at a so-called clinic called Home.

Now, mind you, all of Swift’s labors to reform his eighteenth century society—and by inference the greater society, ours, that sprang from that splendid eighteenth century British seed—had zero effect in changing the vector of culture. Which teaches something real about reform.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Last night was a supermoon, thus the coincidence of a full moon taking place very close to the time when the moon is closest to the earth. In matters of astronomy, someone like me, who tends to be geometrically challenged, can never remember exactly what this sort of things means. Hence I don’t apologize in repeatedly revisiting such subjects: at least for a week or two I can remember the relationships of these mysterious bodies hanging in the sky.

The moon’s orbit around the earth is ever so slightly elliptical. Hence at one point in its travels it is closest to the earth (perigee), at the other farthest (apogee). The image I show comes courtesy of the Physics Department of Utah State University (link). The words are from Greek, peri meaning near, apo meaning away, and the ge is derived from the Greek for earth; we get Gaia from that. The official name for this point in the lunar cycle is called Perigee Moon. “Supermoon” was a very recent coinage by the astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 (per Wikipedia).

The graphic, as noted, exaggerates the ellipse. The inset, also from Wikipedia, shows the difference in perceived size of the moon at its last perigee before yesterday (on March 19, 2011) and its more or less average size (on December 20, 2010). The difference between perigee and apogee according to NASA is 14 percent, but The Huffington Post shows 13 percent, which pleases this tiny subset of humanity here. Supermoons occur once every 14 full moon cycles, thus  roughly every 378 days—just long enough to be news every time, weather permitting, of course, while the memory of why the moon should now seem so much brighter and larger will, each time, have been once more forgotten. That’s when blogs come in handy to have a private reference… How can those monstrously big jets stay in the air? (one of Brigitte’s favorite questions). How can that moon stay up there rather than falling down into the pit of eternity?
See the correction a year later here.

Gold Moon

Gold moon, mid-high, last night,
Your continents visibly dark,
Your oceans a silvery white…
On St. Paul’s no-lights parking lot
Three or four darkened cars,
And people stood by them not,
Mind you, saying anything at all—
Just gazing up: An orange
Supermoon this late June night
With baby Summer three days old.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Street Repair

We moved into our house twenty-four years ago. This Spring at last the roads are being repaired. Today came the first stage. They scraped off about two inches of blacktop using trailer trucks and one awesome machine.

This process—at least in our case—took four passes. In each of them, the machine scoured about one quarter of the street’s surface, moving two very long blocks and then, going in reverse, returning again to the starting point. The pictures I show were taken sequentially as the big machine approached and then passed our house on the third pass. The truck carrying away the scraped surface goes ahead of the scraper; the scraper feeds its waste to the truck by means of a mobile conveyor belt. A close look at the first picture shows the stream issuing from the conveyor.

There is a good deal more to this process. The scraper is accompanied by a tank car carrying water—the water used to cool the process on the truck. The scraper therefore needs a deep drink of expensive water (the men told me it costs them $4 per gallon) to keep from overheating. After the scraping, the street is carefully swept with another machine—which also empties itself periodically into a truck. Later yet will come replacement of defective curbing. And finally the paving. That is still ahead.

Witnessing such work brings home to us what the real world, the physical world, is all about. There are no digital apps for repaving a street. But the digital is still present. While waiting for an empty transport, the scraper operators sat down on the grass to take a rest—and each one immediately began communing with his own smartphone.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Yes. But How to Make Money From It?

Quite obviously democracy is evolving. The form it is now taking is major eruptions of well-off young people in country after country. No sooner has Turkey calmed a little than Brazil explodes. And what with nearly two hundred countries in the world, the end is not yet in sight. This got me to thinking along capitalist lines. How does a person take advantage of this opportunity? Is there a way to cash in on all these many Springs? Deep thought eventually produced an answer. Why not invest in tear gas manufacturers? Why just the other day—its own spring now yesterday—Egypt purchased $2.5 million worth of tear gas for future virtual elections. And that stuff came from here. So who are the suppliers?

Well, fellow investors, things actually don’t look all that promising. The three leading tear gas suppliers in this country are Combined Systems Inc. (Jamestown, PA) (Egypt’s supplier), Nonlethal Technologies (Homer City, PA), and Defense Technology (Casper Wyoming). Only the last of these is, in a manner of speaking, publicly traded. Defense Technology is a subsidiary of Safariland LLC. Safari itself is owned by the UK defense giant BAE Systems PLC. Now you can buy BAE stock, but milking this new emerging market by way of privately held companies is just a little difficult.

How does a domestic supplier sell to other countries—like Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil? Well, with the permission of the State Department. The State Department offers its form DSP-83 (link). The foreign buyer must fill out the form. If State approves, the vendor can ship its shiny tear gas canisters. But if you are hoping to sell tear gas to Brazil, you might want to think twice. The competition may be too tough. Brazil has its own company, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, based in Rio de Janeiro. Condor is a major force—specializing in all kinds of devices for launching non-lethal munitions, not least rubber bullets, and also, of course, what in the trade are called lachrymatory grenades. But the shorter phrase to use, when making inquiries, is “aerosol defense.” That will get you beyond mere tear gas into other useful ways non-lethally to stop democracy when it evolves too fast.

In researching my future means of survival, after Congress nixes my Social Security, I discovered a helpful list from the National Institute of Justice yet (link). That brochure shows 16 manufacturers of pepper sprays, as of 1994. The stock of some of those companies is surely sold on some exchange. But researching that list is still ahead….

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Startled by Malware

Opening this blog this morning, I was startled to see an ad appearing immediately above the title in new space created by something. The background color was the same as in this blog. The ad overlaid it (its content was attractive mortgage rates); below the ad, in gray letters and small print appeared the words: “Ads not by this site.” At first—unfairly to Google, to be sure—I thought that Google was doing it. Therefore, to check on this, I went to other Google blog sites known to me and—sure enough, the same sort of thing was present on those: ads above the blog itself. Soon, by using that phrase itself in a search, I discovered that the ads were positioned on my machine by malware. I found the method to remove them.

I use the Chrome browser. The ad-serving malware comes as an Extension designed to run with Chrome (and presumably other browsers as well). It can be removed as follows. Click the logo in the upper right corner of Chrome (three dark horizontal bars). A menu called “Customize and control Google Chrome” then opens. On that menu, select Tools; on the new menu that opens, select Extensions. A window opens showing all active extension active or not. Those active show a checkmark next to the word Enable. The offender in my case had the name “Start Now.” I was told that it had been placed there by a third party, thus without either Chrome’s or my own explicit approval. Unchecking that Enable and then clicking on the garbage can icon made the extension disappear. And afterwards the ads were gone—on Ghulf Genes as well as on the other blogs I had visited earlier. For good measure I also fired up Microsoft Internet Explorer. No ads there either. So, for the moment…

But what is all this? It is an illustration of the totally amoral and hysterical greed (or anxiety) of our entrepreneurial culture. There is only one way to get money from the Internet (unless you are a communications company and therefore have subscription revenues): by advertising. Any content whatever will do. And the system is forgiving enough to permit these bacteria and viruses to invade a system—yes, despite my own virtual immune system, which is called Norton 360; that system, by the way, also costs real dollars….

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Palatial Birthing Chamber

The mysterious-looking image we present here is the covered cradle for five Black Swallowtail butterflies. Four of them are survivors of twelve!! eggs deposited by an early visitor to our butterfly ranch late in May. It laid its eggs on a quite small dill plant which, itself, had grown in the crack of our driveway but had been replanted in a pot. These four have now settled down and are about to develop their chrysalides. A Swallowtail Mom deposited the fifth one on another dill plant, of our own planting, later; it has a ways to go yet.

Each new year adds to our understanding—and lengthens the season. We’ve already dispatched two butterflies in May. They had spent all winter hibernating in our garage. We now know that the active season extends from early May to late September—when the last-laid eggs mature into caterpillars that form their chrysalides to sail through the winter frosts. We’ve already experienced raising multiple swallowtails simultaneously, but raising four from the same batch is something new. Meanwhile—and we noted this already last season—the Monarch is going through some difficult times. They are said to suffer from climate change and excessive use of pesticides. We saw very few of them last summer and, to date, only a single one so far. No chemicals are used here, at Rancho Mariposa, to be sure. And we even planted milkweed last year to send Monarchs a signal. No takers. Our advertising campaign needs a little work.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Orthodox Unbelief

It amused me to note that Inspector Lewis—in the first episode of a new season on Public TV this past Sunday—is made to be a kind of “of course” atheist. That’s “Robbie” Lewis for us aficionados, played by Kevin Whatley. His sergeant, DS James Hathaway (an ex-seminarian) is more restrained; he only asserts that talking to the dead is ridiculous; he is played by Laurence Fox.

This amused me because the character of Lewis is, of course, nothing of the kind. He is a man from a working class background, a widower who loved his wife, and a very experienced soldier of the wars of crime. And there are no atheists in foxholes. Furthermore, Lewis actually says, in an episode titled “And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea,” written by Alan Pater, “There is a God.” To be sure, the statement expresses gratitude for a much-hoped-for outcome; but atheists don’t couple such outcomes, gratefully, to God. In that same episode Sergeant Hathaway expresses his own agnostic view—agnostic, mind you, which isn’t quite atheism. The current episode, “Down Among the Fearful,” was written by Simon Block: Simon, read Alan!

Now there are, of course, such things as established religions, especially in Britain. Isn’t it from the British we have that very nice word, antidisestablishmentarianism? That word is the longest “non-coined” English word. In Britain, of course, Anglicanism is the formal established religion, but there is the New Established Religion. It is upheld by the BBC. And in its iconic products, of which Mystery is one, and Inspector Lewis on of the jewels of that crown, we must by no means permit admired role models to assert the presence of any higher power in the universe than Orthodox Unbelief.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Echoes of Le Bon

The events of the Arab Spring failed to do so. And the Occupy Movement that began in New York also failed to bring back the memory. But now, with the events in Turkey, suddenly I remembered Gustave Le Bon. I must have been in college when I read him, thus at the latest about fifty years ago. His book, The Psychology of Crowds, but in English translation The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, left a deep impression in my mind—probably because it had a right mysterious flavor. Here is a quote, which I take from the Wikipedia article on the book:

An individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself—either in consequence of magnetic influence given out by the crowd or from some other cause of which we are ignorant—in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.

The flavor of the nineteenth century (the book appeared in 1895) is there in those words: magnetic, hypnotized. Le Bon’s crowd, certainly as I pictured it reading his book, was of masses jammed together in a square. He did not say that the name of the square ought to start with a T, as in Tianaman, Tahrir, or Taksim (ht to Brigitte, whose middle initial is T); nor did he extend his analysis to turning that crowd into an instant settlement with plastic tents and mattresses. He was interested in the peculiar deformation of reasoning powers and judgement that come to the fore when masses gather.

I suppose that Le Bon is no longer on the curriculum. The prevailing view of the crowd has taken on a semi-religious aura over time, perhaps beginning with Woodstock. A deeper wisdom is supposed to rise from vast assemblies of like-feeling people, capable of being aroused and maintained by electronic media.

We need a new Le Bon to update the The Psychology of Crowds, which, these days, has been falsely promoted using labels like direct democracy. But would an update find a publisher today?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

In Praise of Principles

Surprising although it may appear, even a quite pragmatic and seemingly self-centered idea, like national interest, can underpin a rational foreign policy. Surprise diminishes when I go on and see that national interest, at the level of the individual, translates into the protection of life, limb, and living space. Therefore George F. Kennan (1904-2005), the diplomat and thinker, who advocated an abstemious foreign policy based on national interest alone—resistant to humanitarian or moralistic temptations—was really urging a policy easily defended using Natural Law.

I once saw a mouse raise itself up on its hind legs as one of our cats was playing a terminal game with it. The mouse was trying to fend off the cat with its front legs. It was an astonishing if brief spectacle.

Policy based on principle must, of course, never be permitted to become legalistic or sophisticated. National interest does not include protecting the properties overseas of our commercial sector—never mind even more vaguely described interests like access to oil or other resources. Preemptive strikes and the euphemistically called “regime change” cannot be justified by national interest. And interventions on humanitarian grounds? Now that’s the tough one. Fact is, we must say no to that. Such interventions effectively translate into denial of sovereignty to others—also denial of the rights of people to govern themselves. In a very real sense Syria is undergoing an internal process of change. Call it democracy by other means. Now if we had a genuinely effective world government and a world army, then, of course, such mayhem as we see in Syria would be put down. But before such a condition actually arises, the End of Time may have to dawn.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Semmelweis Didn’t Make It Big

My earliest introduction to medical discovery—indeed to science—came when I learned the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) from my mother. Semmelweis is remembered, no doubt only by a few, for discovering a method for drastically reducing puerperal (or childbed) fever; it killed anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of women giving birth in hospitals during the nineteenth century. Semmelweis discovered that puerperal fever was contagious. Therefore he insisted that caregivers wash their hands with chlorinated water after touching a woman—before touching another. This came in 1847 at the Vienna General Hospital. The incidence of fever dropped, in consequence, from 10 to 1-2 percent. His discoveries were ignored and, in a sense, drove him mad. The germ-theory of disease had not been discovered yet. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) made the discovery in the later 1860s.

What with patenting genes in the news, I also know why Semmelweis died early in an insane asylum. Washing hands couldn’t be patented either—and the Market, therefore, could not use its hidden, and largely unwashed, hand to solve the childbed fever problem sooner, making someone very rich in the process. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Prefix Sometimes Dominates

A “venture” is occasionally used as a noun all by itself. Sometimes, with a prefix added, it is an “adventure.” Fine. But neither Brigitte nor I have ever read the word “monition” used by itself, although it turns out to be a perfectly legal English word. Here the background. We saw a movie titled Premonition (2007). We would recommend it. In the wake of seeing it, we got to wondering about the word itself. We could only think of two forms of it: an admonition and the premonition under current scrutiny. Both are common, their meanings known, therefore the meaning of monition is also obvious. It is a warning. When it comes ahead of something that really takes place, it is a form of precognition, but with the negative character of it emphasized. With the ad prefix, which means “to” or “at,” the warning is expressed by someone to someone else. Here is a case where the word warn, derived from Old High German, was too well known and too often used to be displaced by a monition, which comes from the French. But its prefixed versions took root…. If you’re an English speaker with a taste for word-puzzles, a frequent prayer on your lips will be: Nearer, my dictionary, to thee!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Liberal Footnote

On June 6 of this year Harvard issued three reports addressing the fact that enrollments in its humanities programs are declining. This page provides links to those reports. The term, humanities, is a latter-day broadening of what used to be called the liberal arts. The current agitation at Harvard—which is matched, per Wall Street Journal, at many other colleges and universities (“Humanities Fall From Favor,” also June 6, 2013)—is that education has gradually been accepted as entirely and absolutely linked to future employment. What with the enormous cost of education, the burdensome loans that they demand, any curriculum that does not lead arrow-straight to a well-compensated job must be avoided. And the humanities seem useless—unless your career-choice is to teach them.

Now for the footnote portion of this post. It is well to remember that the liberal arts once represented the education of free individuals; that’s what that word “liberal” means. The Online Etymology Dictionary helpfully notes that once that word was contrasted to “servile” or “mechanical” education—thus to the education of people who had to work to survive. This means that the humanities are suitable only for the independently wealthy—whose contributions to society would take the form of public service of one sort or another.

As those with real experience understand full well, all higher level work—I don’t care whether it is done in business, non-profit, military, government, or academic positions—needs above all well-developed powers of insight, judgement, communications skills, and intellectual discipline—not mechanical skills. One tends to learn such of those latter skills as may be needed on the job. The significant exception is the medical profession—typically acquired as a higher degree after the foundations are already laid. I have one daughter who became a midwife—after acquiring a liberal arts degree.

The real solution for the preparation of a genuine leadership class, it seems to me, is to absolutely demand a liberal arts education as a foundation—say three years. After that, chase the pragmatic, by all means. Unless your lottery ticket scores.

Some Still Have It

Early this morning, drawing the curtains aside upstairs (I was already gone), Brigitte saw a fairly bulky bunny rabbit in our backyard feeding at its leisure. I came up bringing the coffee. She told me the story. “He was quite relaxed,” Brigitte related. “Just moving slowly around.” The thought then occurred to me: The bunny has no cell phone; therefore it still has its privacy.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Privacy, Celebrity

Two contradictory tendencies in our society came to mind this morning when I noted that the government’s access to so-called metadata, thus records of phone numbers and the numbers those phones have dialed over time, are still making front-page news with our many sages hyperventilating over the loss of privacy. Yet we are living in a time when evidently very many people long to achieve celebrity.

Celebrity has certain practical benefits—and evidently has had going back to the beginnings of time. I recall reading once that , in seventeenth century France, any person observed in conversation with Louis XIV had as good as made his fortune; I’ve labeled this a law of social physics (link). At the same time, celebrity can mean at least some loss of privacy; in extreme cases media (in such context always labeled paparazzi) will ferret out quite embarrassing details—and even after the famed person grows quite old, they will hound him or her for interviews in preparation of impending death or anniversaries.

The value of brief fame—those 15 minutes Andy Warhol once made famous—may seem rather dubious, but something very odd lurks, thankfully inactively in most people, in the human heart. It is a weird belief that being famous, even if only briefly, gives one something valuable enough to risk not only one’s own but other people’s life and limb. That is why mass shootings take place. One such caused the loss of five lives in Santa Monica yesterday. Alas, no amount of privacy, no amount of anonymity, protects the victims of such celebrity-seekers when fate (see yesterday’s posting) puts them in harm’s way. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Half-Visible Fate

Fate is a word that signifies the outcome of a life, of a society, and is the sort of thing altogether beyond the control of the individual or of a collective. Not surprisingly, in our democratic age, it is much less used in books today (three times less frequently in 2000, according to Google’s ngram program, than it was used in roughly 1805). We don’t believe in fate. If it doesn’t have an arbitrary quality—thus the idea that it is meted out by gods who have a mind of their own we cannot in the least influence—what is left of it is determinism. (Determinism, by the way, while still less used than fate, increased in usage by a factor of 1,842—also per Google—in the same period.) We believe in our power to observe and, by calculation, to project.

Now arguably a large component of fate is to some extent measurable—provided that the data are available for making calculations. If Europeans had had effective world wide news coverage and demographic statics in, say, 1205 AD, they should have been able to predict the Mongol Invasion certainly by 1234 (when the Mongols had already conquered Siberia, China, and parts of Persia) some 50 years before the Mongols reached the borders of Hungary.

My guess is that, in today’s Information Age, we are capable of predicting at least half of Fate quite accurately if we simply focus on two aspects of collective life: energy and demographics. Quite similarly, if we know something about an individual, we shall also be able to predict half of his or her fate based on such measures as intake of poisonous substances, physical activity and body-weight, genetic profile, and criminal record.

That still leaves the arbitrary element inviolable. The government might be able to record in a vast database what we do with a little Verizon phone. But, thank heaven, our data collection has not yet advanced to such an extent that funeral homes, for a fee, can get notification of my future passing years, say, in advance, guaranteed to happen within, say, a three-month period in such and such a year.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stuck in the Industrial Revolution

It isn’t surprising—indeed it is a positive sign, by and large—that the aging “just fade away.” One sign of that fading is failure to keep up with trends in all but a few areas that, once, were of great interest. The reason for this is that the final destination is drawing nearer; one becomes peculiarly aware of a separation from one’s aging body; and attention-capacity is limited. Hence I track events in the world of business in a kind of half-distracted way by scanning headlines, mostly, which tell me that the newest thing, never mind its actual importance in the scheme of life, is mobile communications, social networks, and the devices that make it possible. That’s where things are hot. Occasionally I’m forced to read a little more—because I don’t even recognize a hot new name. Zynga? What or who is Zynga? The headline, in today’s Wall Street Journal, says: “Zynga Reboots With Layoffs.”

My ignorance, today, made me read a few words more. They said: “Zynga Inc. is cutting to the bone. The online game maker, which struggled to build its mobile business…” That’s as far as I needed to read to be in the picture. My eye went on to the next headline. But a thought came as I did so. “You’re hopelessly stuck,” I thought, “hopelessly stuck in the Industrial Revolution.” That a mere game company should dominate a business paper’s business section (“Marketplace”) is part of the future I’m no longer interested in tracking. Industry, yes. I grew up with industry. Big, physical plants making all the things we need to have our kind of massive physical civilization. Materials and machines, rails and planes, chemicals and petrochems. The old world. I used to track it closely. Not that it is dying. But it is—fading away.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Gatsby Blindness

A paper by Arthur Applebee published in The English Journal in 1992 reported (I learned here) that The Great Gatsby was taught (and presumably still is) in 54 percent of public, 64 percent of Catholic, and 49 percent of independent high schools. I attended a Catholic high school in Kansas City, Lillis, which must have fallen into the Gatsby-ignoring 36 percent. The one book I remember reading there was The Screwtape Letters. By the time I read Gatsby, having grown curious about it and wondering why it kind of bobs up at right regular intervals, I was already a grown man with family and children. What it produced in me at the time was a yawning boredom and a baffled wonder. This is a classic? Well, I am a member of the Silent generation. That generation is dated from 1925 to 1945. Gatsby was published in 1925. Children often find some of their parents adulations a little weird. Or is there something else at work here?

Probably. The Great Gatsby was not a flaming success when it first appeared. It bombed in its own time, so much so that its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, thought himself a failure. But the book took on a life of its own during World War II. But why exactly? It centers on the rather empty and sordid love affairs of the tony and the rich, of which Gatsby is the starring figure. Why he is a star, apart from being rich, escapes me. Is that the Great American dream, to be empty, super-rich, and idle? Beats me. No. Not inclined to reread the book to see what I have missed. I guess I simply suffer from another version of Darnay’s disease (link), Gatsby blindness.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Education Costs Through a Wider Lens

With controversy churning once again around a rise in the interest on student loans, Brigitte wondered how the U.S. situation compares to that in other countries. We have memories, of course. Two of our daughters went to college, Michelle in France, Monique in Spain; Michelle also graduated there. We made some minor financial contributions to those efforts (it seems)—but not painful enough even to be remembered. My own reflex reaction was cautious. I sort of doubted that good data would be available. It turned out that I was wrong. A Canadian group, called Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA, link), part of the Canadian Education Project (link), has been collecting data on fifteen countries. The most recent report, titled Global Higher Education Rankings 2010, is available online (link).

HESA’s objective is to measure the affordability of education. Their approach is to compare the actual total cost of education to median income in every country. The cost of education is measured as tuition and costs (fees, books) added to necessary living expenses; that is total cost. Total cost is then reduced by measuring grants and additional tax expenditures made by the country to subsidize educational attainment; such tax expenditures do not include loan programs in HESA’s scheme. The result is net cost. Net cost expressed as a percentage of median income then produces a ranking. HESA reports on those few countries for which it was able to collect all of the data required. I am reproducing one of the summary tables here based on 2008 data:

The table here includes actual net costs for the individual. Loan programs, which do not reduce costs but improve accessibility to education, would be applied to these net costs. In this tabulation, Germany ranks lowest in cost or highest in affordability. The net cost is 15.2 percent of median income in that country. Japan is worst, with education costing 107 percent of median income.

Worth noting here is that in Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, virtually no tuition is charged at all. Finland, Latvia, Netherlands, and New Zealand fall into the low tuition category, Canada, England and Wales, and Mexico are placed into the medium tuition bracket, whereas Australia, Japan, and the United States are in the high tuition category.

The report contains many tables showing details, including data on loan programs. The text brings explanations. The focus in this country, right now, is on loans—which HESA treats as a somewhat marginal issue. The real one is what education costs. The high costs in the United States and in Mexico are in part due to the big cost difference between private and public education in those countries. If only public education were charted, the U.S. would be closer to Canada in rankings and Mexico closer to Australia.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Medical Layoffs

Back when we first arrived here in the United States, hospitals did not advertise, merge or acquire one another, or had layoffs. St. John, the nearest substantial hospital to us, was then under construction and opened its doors the year after, in 1952. It was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who had their own start on these shores in 1889—but whose origins as an order date back to France and 1650. Things change, as they say. Later, much later, St. John, a by-now expanded health system, became part of Ascension Health, the largest Catholic non-profit organization in the United States. It is now St. John Providence Health System. By that time, what with the competition, don’t you know, St. John was already advertising itself. So do virtually all the major systems in this city: the whole ball of wax: billboards, videos, print. Therefore advertising, check. Mergers and acquisitions, check. The latest checkmark came last week: yes. Layoffs. The reasons for this are multiple.

For one, there has been a shift from inpatient to outpatient care, not just within the St. John’s system but across the board, affecting all hospitals. All those rooms, all those beds: neglected. The outpatient services, very crowded. Why this change? Money, no doubt. Ever more people who need to stay in the hospital are, instead, homeward bound on self-propelled stretchers, on crutches, or never even bothered to have that necessary operation because they had been laid off. Add to this escalating costs, not least barely compensated emergency room services, the sequester, and so on. Cost are going through the roof.

One of the St. John billboards is prominently located at Mack and Moross, about a block from the St. John, the flagship. We see it all the time. Others are located at much more densely travelled traffic lanes like Interstate 94—competing there with the Ford System’s and Beaumont’s proud towers in the sky. I got to thinking about that. 1951—no advertising. So what does a billboard cost—never mind several. I did a little looking. Billboards are in the range of 14 by 48 feet in size. They are populated by panels, so-called, measuring 14 by 4 feet. So it takes 12 panels for each. Minimum costs per panel, for four weeks, are around $1,500 dollars. In the Detroit metro area, pricing for high-traffic areas begins at around $2,800 per panel. So the range here is, for one billboard, from $18,000 to $33,600 for a four-week period. To be sure, not all billboards are full size—and some are larger. Costs may be less for some, significantly higher for the big ones. Still, if one billboard can cost a hospital minimally $216,000 (suburb) or $403,200 a year (freeway)—and several are used—and if you add the cost of preparing a handful of promotional videos, with actors, music, writing, and all that, and sprinkle in some print promotion too—it would not surprise me that a system like St. John Providence has an advertising budget of at least a million a year.

The system is now going to lay off 160 people—and the local media add: “probably only for starters.” If we assume an average saving per discharged employee of $40,000 (which is a very low guesstimate), the savings will be $6.4 million. Therefore X-ing out the ad budget would not produce anything like the gains promised by layoffs. Therefore the show goes on: endless new mergers (presumably saving on overhead), advertising (to attract people to underused facilities) and layoffs to lower costs. And after us, the deluge. It pains me to see all this high-tech progress rapidly evolving to bring what? The witch-doctor back?