Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Note on Reading Reading

Brigitte read to me—after our discussion about Justice Sotomayor (see last post)—a brief piece by Dan Ariely, part of Ask Ariely, in the Wall Street Journal of today: “Do Audiobooks Count as Reading?” Ariely reports that, for him, following an audio book requires more attention that reading a book—and Brigitte and I tend to agree. But our discussion ranged well beyond that. My own reaction to any kind of streaming medium—be it a film, a recording—is a lack of freedom. If one’s device is well equipped, one can certainly stop in the middle of it. But going back, be it on a disk or a tape, is a major problem. When reading a book, it is merely a glance back—and memory is good enough so that one can go back just the right number of pages to recall yet another passage. And books permit you to annotate, to underline.

It then occurred to us that these real-time media are but a electronic extension of ordinary life, where something is always moving and cannot be stopped. The chief merit of YouTube is that it does permit back or forward tracking—and freezing of images. Teaching people how to read, therefore, and accustoming the young to reading books, represents something very important in the development of civilization. It teaches sustained attention—and the value of a symbolic representation of reality. At the same time, it increases our freedom to grasp and understand reality, in a symbolic form. It lifts us above the unending, compelling flow.

There was a story recently of a school where every child received a laptop and all instruction came by way of the machine. The children love it, but the teachers have mixed reactions. Are they sensing something missing in that interaction? Are we, electronically armored, going back to the caves?

Well Suited for Her Job

Names with a special sound, a kind of roll, catch our attention around here. Therefore, out of the blue the other day, Brigitte wondered whether or not the name of one of our Supreme Court Justices, Sonia Sotomayor, might have a meaning. We both do this sort of thing—but I usually do the searching. Well, soto means a “thicket” and mayor means “major, high, or great.” The Spanish translate the French phrase force majeure, as fuerza mayor. You get the picture. The result pleased us—rather. Sotomayor had found the perfect name. Sonia is a variant of Sophia, and Sophia stands for Wisdom. And here is a lady wise about a major thicket, the laws of the United States…

Friday, August 30, 2013


Temporarily uncovered next to me, on a stool layered by books, the Second Series of D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism just now produced the thought “austerity” as I glanced down. And the feeling-context was quite positive: refreshing, restoring, noble austerity.

It’s early morning, and I’d just surveyed front pages in two papers. In one I was shown a list of new tech companies. In most cases the “technology” appears to consist of code to be run on mobile devices, the programs intending to enhance our gaming experiences or the ambiance of our social networking . In another story, in another paper, I learn that gigantic rubber ducks are now de rigueur if you live in the Hamptons (read Long Island, NY), own a McMansion, a Mercedes G-Class SUV, and an Aquariva boat. Or equivalent. Or better. Hosting huge parties is another necessary qualification for giant duck ownership.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Trying to See the Principle

Incoherence happens, one might say. But when it happens in the social context, the cause can usually be traced to muddled principles. Having said this, let me sort out my own reactions to the pending U.S. intervention to punish Syria for using nerve gas in its civil war.

At the basic level it seems to me logical to assert that deadly violence is deadly violence no matter how it is applied to a target. The weapons system that produces it—be it bullets or grenades or IUDs, artillery, bombing, drones, gas, or atomic bombs—is therefore a secondary consideration. Under what principle, therefore, is gas attack so much more heinous than the conventional killing that has already taken place?

Yes, I know. I was a child through World War II; the use of gas in WW I was then a still fresh and horrid collective memory. But WW II produced its own mass killings of civilian populations; atomic bombs on two Japanese cities are but the most awesome examples. Does it matter whether you convulse to death or die by having your flesh melt off your bones?

Under what principle may one sovereign attack another if no state of war exists between the two? Is that the principle of Might is Right? Is there a principle under Natural Law that makes one country Cop of the World? The principle of collective self defense is present in that law, not selective and you might say boutique attacks with missiles and such in certain carefully selected cases to justify threats made in speeches in order to deter Syria from using nerve gas—the threats themselves not justified except by might. That might also guarantees our own fairly certain invulnerability to a response.

Yes, incoherence happens. I note that wherever it happens, it also sets the stage for random violence in other venues as well. The young are hungry for rhyme and reason. When it is denied by the society as a whole, by the family structure, it can sometimes burst into a kind of madness we’ve come to call “going postal.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cadfael's Places

For British fans of Ellis Peters (nee Elizabeth Parteger), the Cadfael novels, and the television series based on them are firmly planted in the mind as real. But those, like me, born far from there and living in America—and especially those who’re geography-challenged unless we look it up—the town of Shrewsbury in England, in the border region that adjoins Wales to the east, might appear to be a very nice fictional invention. But of course it is real. I began reading those novels roughly twenty years ago. And ever since, off and on, I’ve promised myself to look it up. My pathetic sense of geography had Wales located right next to Scotland somewhere—until Brigitte, yesterday, raised her eyebrows oddly and corrected me. Therefore finally, I looked it up. And the first image I show is a map locating Shropshire, of which Shrewsbury is the central city—as shown in the second map.

The Severn river, which plays such a major role in the Cadfael novels, is clearly shown meandering through Shrewsbury. But since Cadfael’s times, what we’d call a beltway curves beneath the city, a so-called ‘A’ Road—which, heading toward the east becomes M54, something we’d call a freeway. As for the Severn, what follows is a view of it. The picture is taken from Shrewsbury castle, looking south. In the distance is Shrewsbury; not quite visible to the far left is the Shrewsbury abbey. The water is flowing toward the photographer here, thus to the north.

The last novel I’ve recently re-read was The Raven in the Foregate. The foregate is a triangular area surrounding the abbey of Shrewsbury, still functioning as a church today. The only picture I’ve managed to get of the foregate itself shows an image taken when it was flooded in November 2000; the Severn can still be unruly. In that picture I notice a half-submerged red telephone booth. Or is it? In the dimensions where I am fully at home, that red structure might well be the Tardis temporarily stopping so that Dr. Who could take a look at the damage and lend a hand in restoring back to pristine order one of my favored fictional town-scapes. The second image shows the awesome interior of the Shrewsbury Abbey where the abbots Heribert and Radulfus, the real abbots and the fictional, presided over the faithful in the years 1128 through 1147.

My pictures come from Wikipedia’s pages on Shropshire, Shrewsbury, and Shrewsbury Cathedral. Clicking on the images will enlarge them. My next project, in this nexus, will be to understand the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud…

Monday, August 26, 2013

Milkweed Notes

I’m becoming more and more convinced—now that we noted, with momentary shock, that August was virtually over—that the plant of the season, this year, may be our Swamp Milkweed. We got it last year in a pot with the idea that a modest backyard aspiring to host butterflies ought to have this plant. It is the favored breeding base for the Monarch. The plant did poorly, was quite disappointing—even after I had freed it of its pot and planted it in a bed where it shares space with lilies and grasses and three varieties of hosta. This Spring, however, the milkweed had not only multiplied but flowered, and it now shows signs of bearing ample fruit—in seed pods.

I’ve noted the early flowering of milkweed on this blog a little earlier (link). Then I failed to take pictures when the flowers opened. Never mind. With a little assist from Bear Creek Nursery (link), I can here show the full glory of this rather humbly named but very stately, tall plant. Its Latin name is Asclepias incarnata. It gets its name from the Greek god of medicine Asklepios; he is the fellow who holds the rod around which a serpent twines….

The second image shows what happens after the flowers have done their duty. Large pods form around them—green this time of year. They hold future seeds. Later in the season they turn into brown and brittle pods that break open and show the seeds within embedded in silvery-white masses of superfine hair that carry them off in the winds of the Fall. The name presumably comes from those masses of white. Later this season I hope to have photographs of those as well.

I note, without accompanying emotion, that thus far we have seen not a single Monarch in this yard. Where butterflies are concerned, the most showy community of that kingdom has been the species Cabbage White (some members of which are actually yellow). They rather liked sipping the nectars of Asclepia incarnata, but their real favorite has been our masses of mint and their blue blooms.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Richer by Mesoamerica

The first of our large tomatoes reached harvesting stage yesterday; the cherry tomatoes shown with them ripened much earlier. This reminded me, once again—the thought recurs when I am focused on these very lovely fruits—that they were not known to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere until the European discovery of America. But sometimes I wonder, having such thoughts, if that is really true or whether I am simply echoing something I’d read or heard long ago but never looked up. So this morning I checked. Yes. The five major plants I’ve always linked—tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, cacao, and maize—all originated in Mesoamerica, of which I provide a map for good measure. The first three of these belong to the Family of Solanaceae, called nightshades.

How that name, nightshade, got itself attached to such glorious sun-lovers as tomatoes is a puzzlement. The word, per Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from Old English nihtscada (the current German is Nachtschatten), apparently derived from a poisonous berry. As for potatoes, that grow in the dark, that makes sense. And tobacco, of course, can kill you as well. The Latin name is somewhat obscure; per Wikipedia it may derive from Solanum nigrum, the botanical name of a berry that goes by many names, including Hound’s Berry; parts of it are poisonous. The other explanation is that it comes from the Latin verb solari, meaning “to soothe,” an action attributed to the sometimes present pharmacological effects of this family of plants. Yes, for some, tobacco is a medicine against the stress of life.

The nightshades are represented by some 2,700 species in the vegetable kingdom; and they are not solely confined to Mesoamerica. But those in most common use come from that “middle” part that links the north to the south of the American continents. Cacao belongs to the family of Malvaceae; chocolate has everything to do with glory, nothing with the night or the shade. Now as for maize, it belongs to the family of Poaceae. Those huge ears, full of sugar, are actually the fruit of “true grasses” in the language of biology, and maize a giant among them.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Agile in Our Anility

The original Siamese twins, known to the world later as Chang and Eng Bunker, died in 1874 and therefore a hundred and thirty-eight years before I was even born. They were born in what is now Thailand where, presumably, a name like Bunker was not very common. And, to be sure, it wasn’t. They got that name from a British merchant, Robert Bunker, who persuaded their parents to let him exhibit the pair on a world tour...

This is a rather long way of saying that, working a crossword puzzle yesterday, Brigitte and I did not, automatically, know the answer to the following clue: “Chang’s twin.” The answer had to fit into three squares. We got the first and the last letter of the name by solving other words: E­__G. So what letter should we put into in the middle? Solving for the word that intersected E__G, we got A__ILE. The clue for that word was “Feeble and doddering.” We tried every letter of the alphabet for that blank. The only one that produced a plausible answer was G, as in agile. But agile, it seemed to us, was the very opposite of feeble and doddering. Finally, the whole puzzle was filled in except for that the blank that marked the twin and the dodderer.

So I looked up the shorter of the two. ENG. The missing letter was the N. That, in turn, gave us ANILE for the feeble and the doddering. We looked at each other, baffled, raising hands and eyebrows. “Webster’s please,” said the word surgeon. And there we found the definition for a new word. And at our age. It is: “Of or resembling a doddering old woman.” No end of surprises!

Well, it turns out that the Latin anus—a feminine noun with a masculine ending—does mean an old woman. In fact, Ovid used the phrase anus Cumaea to indicate the Sybil of Cumaea. Meanwhile our word, anus, comes from the Latin annulus, meaning “ring,” shortened to anus. The word senile, by contrast, derives form the Latin senex, meaning “old.”

Now when the Queen in 1992 described that year as the annus horribilis, she was using two Ns, not one, and describing a year, not herself—although she was sixty-eight that year. Curiously, of course, that annus is also a ring, in a way, describing a circle in another dimension, that of time. We two are also gathering dust, anility competing with senility. How much time is left us? Who knows? And how many new words shall we still discover? Plenty, I am sure. That ocean has no shore.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

As Through a Needle

As I brought Brigitte the massive sheaves that constitute the Sunday New York Times, she eyed me for a moment and then said: “Do you have something white? And 8 and a half by 11?” In other seasons, very often, I bring her whatever blog posts I have written. Not of late. I got to pondering the dearth of entries in the wake of this exchange and eventually came up with a generalization that fits it. The broadest of these generalizations comes from astrophysics. It is a wormhole, a hypothetical topological feature (quoting Wikipedia) that links two regions of spacetime.

I’ve spent most of my time this summer in the world of nature, that is to say our “garden,” front and back. A new lawn in front has needed lots of worry and care; in the back we have what the Times recently called an embarrassment of tomatoes—never mind the perennial magnificence of our mint bush—which yesterday attracted, and for some hours held, no fewer than five members of the Cabbage White butterfly. And never mind the newest arrival, our flowering milkweed. And much else, including a rearrangement of our furniture to give the plants more sun. The more you look, the bigger any world becomes until one’s lost in its this-worldly infinities.

The world of blogging is, in its more humble way, also incredibly vast. If you’re in the one, you’re not in the other. But what connects the two is, like, a wormhole. Therefore to go from contemplating the exact redness of our earliest big tomatoes—or the first and altogether premature red leaves appearing on our Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)—one has to make a passage through a very narrow place, and entering that needle is not something gladly done.

Years ago, while I was still working, I arrived home after a vacation and what with deadline pressures much intensified, I had to plunge back into the worlds of code and indices and publication credits and such. I recalled that time as today I contemplated Brigitte’s inquiry about something white and 8-1/2 by 11. Back then I had said to her. “Getting back to work is like passing through a hypodermic, dear. It seems impossible. But when you finally make the passage, you discover that the other side is just as big as this one.”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Observation v. Illusion

Events in Egypt (at this point marked by Square Cleansing of Brotherhood Supporters), had me asking myself this morning: “Did anybody really win the French Revolution?” The boiling eventually stopped, but looking for a winner—as in who achieved power in that endless flux— the best answer is that Napoleon Bonaparte was the victor. He gained ultimate power and ended the Revolution when, in a coup, he dispersed the so-called Directorate and replaced it with the Consulate (1799). He was then a mere 30-year old self-made general of genius.

Refreshing my memory of the Revolution by reading the highly-condensed Wikipedia article on the subject, I though that the text sounded like instant commentary describing the boiling of a stew. You want chaos? There it is. In 1789 France had a population of 28 million—a large enough number to produce the kind of chaos that is not really describable. Egypt today has a population of nearly 83 million.

The parallels are many—because, in fact, upheavals such as the French or the Egyptian revolutions are best described as natural events. They happen when social structures reach a certain social paralysis and then, quite spontaneously, rearrange themselves—not unlike tensions in the earth’s crust that produce periodic quakes. In that process, inevitably, chaos results. And the chaos eventually ends when order is restored, always by military force.

While the chaos rages, all manner of illusory ideas will lend color to the madly rising steam that rises from the bubbling pot: such as progress or the fervently sought arrival of millennium. The deep intuition in the human soul—that all of us are destined for a better realm—gets projected to the here and now. But here and now is not where that takes place. But what is going on, here and now, is much better described as the mechanics of society. When these have frozen up while life’s energies continue to push demanding change, chaos happens.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Active" Squared by Science

We are Seniors, busy, active,
We’re also mobile and we’re spry.
Nips and tucks make us attractive,
We climb mountains, we can fly.
But to those who are proactive,
Unwilling yet to say goodbye,
Doctors promise something drastic
From old hip U of Hawaii.

The doctors there have found a tactic
To breed rabbits that glow by night—
DNA and such. Fantastic!
Hurrah, we say. Let us be bright!
Allergic to anything lactiv?
Who cares! We’ll soon be radioactive.

The inspiration for this comes from an article in The Atlantic, August 13, 2013, reachable here and titled “Glowing Bunnies: Why They Matter.” Rabbits, cats, even a lamb will soon glow in the dark. But here is one Senior who hopes that by the time the U of Hawaii is ready to launch Glow-Baby-Glow, Inc., complete with IPO and all of that, there will be a choice of colors.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shivery Doubt

Windy, grey, overcast day.
The temp gauge strains to reach but
Doesn’t quite manage to touch
Fifty-eight degrees of F.

This summer so far seems to
Lack those bruising torrid can’t
Breathe spells of heat that cause me
To believe that Global Warming rules.

The sun has a huge hole, or
Had, some coronal void
From which vast tongues outward bound
Lick the darks of space. No link.
Fear naught, we’re told. Not that, not that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fruits of the Season

The tomatoes come from our garden, the earliest. The peaches come from Monique's tree--way over on the other side of the metro area. We also saw, yesterday, the arrival of two Black Swallowtail males, named Max and Moritz. They were the eleventh and twelfth of our "production" this year--and the thirteenth, not yet named, will probably break from its chrysalis tomorrow. Moritz is resting on the leaf of our hydrangea brush. He dried his wings on that leaf for better than an hour, having flown there from our outdoor metal table. Then, finally, deep sigh, out into the world...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Deadline Pressures...

In Crossword Puzzle setting. Such puzzles aren’t written; they are set. I know this because I know the rather rich Morse series of detective shows, based on the novels of Colin Dexter. What with Morse a crossword puzzle lover, sooner or later we were bound to learn (1) that his first name was Endeavor (witness the latest in the derivative series based on those novels) and (2) something about the craft of puzzle making.

Setters have deadlines too—and what with the mass of puzzles to be made owing to the number of still surviving dailies and the number of days in the year—the pressure must be on. We noticed its presence in working (actually trying to work) the Saturday puzzle of August 3 in USA Today. Irritating puzzles for us are those with sports, pop culture, and celebrity names. In this particular puzzle nine such clues—and eight other name-clues—stopped us dead at last.

What struck us in this puzzle was the nature of first names we encountered as answers, including Sal, Ara, Lil, Les, Sol, Clu, and Tug. Tug? It is supposed be the first name relief pitcher McGraw. Only, of course, McGraw’s name was (he died in 2004) Frank Edwin, not Tug at all. When time pressures are great and the puzzle will not be finished unless odd words that “happen” are very tough to match with a clue, celebrity tags are very handy. The setter of this puzzle had problems. One place he ended up with the word RIV (53 down) for which, evidently he could not find a matching celebrity. So what clue did he provide? “Miss., e.g.” Oh, I get it. The answer sort of flashes instantly into the mind—five days too late. That Old Man Riv, isn’t it. He just keeps flowing along.

Another that pleased us mightily was the clue: “What the looker is next, presumably.” A clue like that, also presumably, would have sent crossword shivers of delight down Endeavor’s spine, but as for Brigitte and me, it produced that stare associated with bovines before a barn door. The answer is LEAPER. Get it? Look before you leap. Live and learn. When I see a future clue like “Ancient Chinese emperor, familiarly,” I’ll know that the answer is KUB. And when I see “What the fetcher is next, presumably,” I’ll know that it will be CARRIER.

And oh, by the way, and in parting. If you’re ever at an art exhibition and you see a sign next to a picture that merely says NFS, you will also know, after working this puzzle, that it means Not for sale.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Libertarian Impulse

What is behind it? Where does its energy come from? Could it come from total gridlock—the inability of the collective to do anything at all? To view the libertarian impulse as arising from principles, from a philosophical stand, would seem to be unfair. Humans are so obviously a social species that libertarianism, taken to its ultimate expression, becomes rationally incoherent. It is much more accurate to see this impulse arising because the collective has ground to a halt, can no longer act—although it ought to. And then the healthy impulse is to find some other level where action may still be possible.

This thought arose as I read a profile of Thomas Massie in the Wall Street Journal this morning. Massie is a freshman congressman from Kentucky, a leader of the radical right, a young man of obvious technical and entrepreneurial talent and vigor—and married to a lady of matching traits. One of his exploits, replacing a defective water heater at the Lewis County, KY jail—by buying a used one on e-Bay and installing it himself, saving the county $6,500 in the process, is told here and illustrates the tendency.

One of my own more memorable insights into social change came from studying the French revolution—and never mind its bloody and half-insane political flowering. It’s the background where the insight was hidden. France had become paralyzed over centuries, had become a frozen place, a collective that no longer functioned. You could not go from one county to the other—just to cite one example—without buying enough salt to last you a lifetime. Travelers, of course, could not buy and carry so much salt in actuality—never mind across three county borders—but the purchase of it was necessary anyway—and had to be paid, or lesser bribes forked over to avoid it. Napoleon’s true achievement was wiping the slate clean, once and for all—of this and many other insane laws that time and custom had imposed.

Politics is just the most visible surface marker of things going on deep down in a society. The libertarian impulse, therefore, is a healthy one—one reason why, sometimes wondering about our own reaction, Brigitte and I, who are communitarian in orientation, that word underlined, sometimes agree with the likes of Rand Paul and Thomas Massie.