Friday, January 31, 2014

Other Sports

We’re now on the eve, almost, of the nation’s biggest sports event, the Superbowl. By tradition we number these in the Roman style—hence once a year I have to spend five minutes figuring out what structures like XLVIII mean. That comes to 48. (Maddening, really, these traditional ways of doing things. Logically XL should either mean 500 or 60—not 40, but I digress.)

The other day some announcement alerted us to the growing popularity of soccer among American women and girls, and we got to talking about the “other sports.” This then led to wondering what the big traditional sports of India and China might once have been. And had they survived? These days getting a quick look at such things is easy. What became clear is that among individual sports for males, wrestling is universal, for females dancing in some form certainly is. Among team sports what we call soccer had as big a footprint in China in ancient times as it now has in the Western world; the U.S. is the only major country that treats “football” with benign neglect. The Chinese cuju goes back to the second or third centuries BC—so that is pretty old. After a while we also remembered that Native Americans had also had a sport; it was (and is) played with a ball moved about by using a basket mounted on the end of a stick. I describe the game that way because, for the life of us, we couldn’t think of the sport’s name.

We couldn’t think of it despite the fact that the sport is played in Spring and Fall almost daily at the two middle-schools we routinely drive past—by girls as well as boys. Off I went to discover the name; as I was returning, Brigitte was calling ahead. Her memory had produced it: Lacrosse. “No wonder we couldn’t think of it,” I said. “It has a French name.” Yes. Canadians named the game, jeu de la crosse, crosse here meaning “a crooked stick.” The Ojibwa called it baaga’adowe

Well, today—here is that vast weather of endless associations swirling in the collective mental air—came a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “Team Sports Don’t Make The Cut With American Kids.” The upshot of this story is that of six popular sports played by youths up to age 18, four have lost participation between 2008 and 2012: tackle football, soccer, baseball, and basketball; basketball is the biggest loser, having lost 8.3 percent of participation. Two sports have gained following: ice hockey, 64 percent, and lacrosse—a stunning 158.3 percent.

Will such shifts in popularity have any impact on the Superbowl? Of course not. Or, come to think of it, maybe. Superbowl Sunday is also undergoing transformations. Every year it has less and less to do with football and is more and more becoming the greatest religious holiday of Modernity, the Day of Advertising.

My images come from Wikipedia here and here. The first shows a Chinese drawing from the fifteenth century, the second the 2005 NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Championship.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Black Hole Denial Revisited

A while back (December 2011), I had a post entitled “Flirting With Black Hole Denial” (link). It surprised me, therefore, that Stephen Hawking appears to have doubts of his own, the doubts released January 22, 2014. Hawking, of course, is a top-ranked physicist and foremost student of black holes. The story is here. In his paper he says: “There are no black holes—in the sense from which light can’t escape to infinity.” His conclusion is based on the apparent conflict between quantum mechanics and relativity. He is quoted as saying to CBC News: “The conflict is that with quantum mechanics, you’re never destroying information. If information gets completely lost and falls into a black hole, there’s no way of reversing this. So either Einstein’s theory of relativity is incomplete, or quantum mechanics is incomplete.”  It will be fun to watch this one evolving over time.

What’s likely to fall into the devouring jaws of Doubt next? Dark matter perhaps? (link).

Full Moon Soon

For voluntary lunatics like us, 2014 begins auspiciously. The month began with a new moon on the 1st and will end with another new moon tomorrow on the 31st of January too. I stress that word, new, because, well, it will also be a full moon tomorrow; here is why.

What with the snow and cold—and hearing about Atlanta (Atlanta!??!) being paralyzed by ice—I might have overlooked this fact, distracted by the immediately here and now. But by happenstance I was reading one of Stephen Jay Gould’s books of essays, Eight Little Piggies, in which he reminded me that until 1959 of the current era no humans could possibly imagine the backside of the moon. In that year the Soviet Luna 3 probe photographed the far side; in 1968 Apollo 8 orbited the moon; hence Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were the first three humans to see that side of the moon with their own eyes.

Now it so happens that when the Moon is New for us, it is Full Moon on the other side, on the one we sometimes refer to as the dark side of the moon. We would, of course, thus designated it; we are always seeing things from our peculiar perspective. I found a full image of that side on Wikipedia here—then got to wondering how come the moon persists in staring at us with one of its faces only.

The name of the explanation is synchronous rotation, also called tidal locking (a good visual example is here). The moon rotates around its own axis as it simultaneously rotates the earth. But its own rotation takes exactly the same amount of time as its circuit of the earth. Therefore one half of it is always oriented to our planet. The deeper explanation (hidden in that name, tidal locking, is that the earth’s gravitational force deforms the moon slightly, which aids and abets the moon’s rotational behavior.

What we see is what we get. But what we see depends on where we are.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger

It was some time in 1967 that we crossed the Iron Curtain as a family to visit members of our family whom World War II had left behind the Wall. This was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever taken—and it so happened that we “encountered” Pete Seeger there for the first time, at least consciously. Seeger was 48 that year and had already achieved worldwide fame; without doubt we’d heard many of his songs already, but not quite consciously.

During that trip I took part of a morning to visit a bookstore in the town of Weissenfels (around 40,000). The store, to my amazement, featured literally scores of American writers of a left-leaning persuasion, all in translation—so much so that I needed the clerk’s help to find a book actually written by an honest-to-God East Germany author. Having found that, I chanced across a large American album. It was Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” first published in 1966. I bought it right then and there.

What we did not know, when visiting there, was that Pete Seeger had performed in East Berlin early in January of 1967—which, perhaps, explains why his record would have been selling in Weissenfels. At any rate, that album became our introduction to this quite phenomenal figure in popular culture and, in our hearts, a close and valued friend. Later on, we once actually heard him perform in an outdoor venue somewhere in the Washington, DC area—and by that time our girls were lustily singing right along with him, having learned all the word from that East German album.

Who killed Norma Jean?
I, said the City, as a civic duty,
I killed Norma Jean.

Who saw her die?
I, said the Night, and a bedroom light,
We saw her die.
  [Norman Rostan, “Who Killed Norma Jean”]

Now Pete Seeger passes too—and time will silt him over, as it has silted over his album, which is around here somewhere, fossilizing slowly without a machine any longer available to play it. He died last Monday—and is probably tuning up his banjo somewhere beyond the Borderzone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dig Down to the Roots

A very thoughtful column by David Brooks in the New York Times today (“Alone, Yet Not Alone”) caught our eyes this morning. Its thematic is in the second paragraph:

There is a gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world.

The first paragraph presents the problem:

There is a vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young. When secular or mostly secular people are asked to give their impression of the devoutly faithful, the words that come up commonly include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old fashioned” and “out of touch.”

The column is well worth reading in full—and should be relatively easy to get on-line even by those who are not subscribers to the paper. It illustrates a general problem reaching far beyond its contrast between religious and secularist behavior. Prejudices arise when people misinterpret what they do not understand and have never experienced. Every human avocation will have its behavioral counterparts; if only the behavior is seen, and the motivation behind it is hidden from view—as internal experiences will inevitably be—superficial appearances will be misread by the uninformed.

Misreading behavior, of course, can also be found among believers—who fail to cut the secularists slack. Pope Francis has been pointing that out in recent times. The story also reminded me of a Sufi snippet I read somewhere in the work of Idries Shah. It concerns a Sufi teacher called Abdul Qasim Gurgani. Eager want-to-be disciples surrounded him and once pestered him about his humility. He said: “My humility which you mention is not there for you to be impressed by it. It is there for its own reason.”

Playing Pretend

Tonight is the State of the Union address. In our day, as usually, the media were projecting the main thrust of it days ahead of time. We were told that President Obama, whose ability to govern has been neutralized by the paralysis of the legislative branch, will announce initiatives in 2014 he is able to carry out without legislative backing. Thus he will act administratively.  

But it is well to remind ourselves that important actions always involve some kind of compelling force—and the expenditure of money. All matters left to the President’s sole discretion tend to be of a minor nature. The Constitution, Article II, Section 2, grants him command over the military—but not declaration of war. He may also “require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in cases of Impeachment.” He “shall [also] have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” This part of Section 2, however, is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court which will decide “what is is,” i.e. what “the Recess of the Senate” actually means—seeing that the Senate has been playing games and pretends to be in session when it actually is not. Finally, in Section 3, the following words appear: “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” What little freedom the President possesses, administratively, lies in that phrase. When Congress has not been meticulously detailed in specifying exactly what the President has to do, the President is free to interpret the vagueness. Let us say that some law requires that regulations be issued on, say, toxic gas emissions. In that case, up to a point, it is up to the President to define what “toxic” means and then to lay down in detail how that gas is to be regulated.

Congress sometimes, pretending to be regulating something, to satisfy a noisy constituency, will pass a law requiring that the President shall issue regulations that have no real power. Such was the case in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) a long time ago (1976). It demanded that the EPA promulgate “recommended guidelines” for the disposal of solid waste. These guidelines had no teeth. Nonetheless, they were part of the Act. I was then at EPA. We largely ignored this requirement of the RCRA. The process for promulgating “guidelines” was just as lengthy and onerous as issuing real “regulations.” It took months of work, publication in the Federal Register, public meetings, publication of comments, and a long process of answering each comment. So we “neglected” these guidelines until we were sued by a consortium of environmental activists.

These activists, in turn, sued not because they wanted guidelines but because they wanted regulations. But until the guidelines were available, they could not pressure Congress to revise the RCRA to turn them into regulations. This, you might say, is the “glory of democracy” up close and personal. Despite our vast effort to publish guidelines, no regulations ever followed—because Congress didn’t want to do it.

It the President can be sued because he doesn’t do something, he can be (and very often is) sued because he does. This is happening in countless cases every year. The processes drag on and on. Their chief merit, it seems to me, is job-creation, creating jobs for lawyers. But, in these latter days, even that seems to be flagging. Just the other day I saw a story about graduating lawyers having problems finding actual jobs…

The President’s intention, therefore, to use his oh so limited administrative powers to lift employment, curb poverty, implement health care, and to solve the immigration problem will, if minorly successful, no doubt still be under litigation after he has retired and Hawaii is building the Obama Presidential Library.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Milkweed in Winter

So this has been a rather snowy winter around here. Genuine snow-falls almost daily. Looking out the window of our sunroom yesterday it seemed to me that our skeletal milkweed had suddenly bloomed again. For images of milkweed in bloom, we have to go back a ways to October (link).

A $46 Million Minus Sign

In the Wall Street Journal this morning comes an article titled “New Masters of the Art Universe.” Hedge fund managers are evidently spending their small change on buying expensive art and then—they can’t really help it, it’s a reflex with them—trading these art works again. I was just scanning the story sort of when I saw one purchase that made me laugh spontaneously. One no doubt famous trader had spent $46 million on a painting simply known as Rothko’s “No. 11 (Untitled).” I am bringing a copy of it here—not, mind you, a photograph. I dare not reproduce the actual image lest I be sued for copyright infringement. I made it myself using the Paint program Microsoft conveniently supplies with my Vista operating system.

Moments later Brigitte was laughing with me. Now, of course, ours is but a view from one perspective. We view art as imagery. And yes. Rothko’s total oeuvre, to give it the appropriate description, is mostly minus signs in different colors, but his pronounced preference is for shades of red and orange. The few blue-tinted minus signs don’t look at home at all. Green is absent, except in the pocket of Rothko buyers. The more comprehensive view point, in which “art as image” is only a slice, includes vast ranges of human perception based on trading value, money, shorting and longing any kind of saleable object. And that’s where our Masters of the Art Universe are busy vying with one another for reflected glory. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


The subject arose—these things happen seemingly by chance, like seeing a cardinal appear on a snow-covered branch in January—why it was that God forbade the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to a certain pair in Paradise…and how come it was the woman who reached for the fruit and not the man—whereas it is only too well known that in such cases the woman would have been more passively cautious whereas the man, typically of  men, would have grabbed the apple first, even priding himself of able to climb the tree if so required.

Well, never mind. The discussion, as it evolved, brought back memories of Robert Graves’ call it essentially unreadable book, unreadable to an amateur, like me, who knows no Latin and even less Greek really—The White Goddess. In that book Graves coins the word used in my title, a word that the Wiktionary (here) defines as follows:

The accidental or deliberate misinterpretation by one culture of the icons or myths of an earlier one, especially so as to bring them into accord with those of the later one.

Graves held that images, usually carved or rendered as mosaics, created in the Age of Matriarchy were later reinterpreted in such a manner as to conform to the ideology of the Age of Patriarchy that rose to dominance later. Literally, the word means “image-turning” in English.

Graves provides many examples of such reinterpretation, but one of these will do. Take the tale of Paris, the Trojan, who, given an apple by Hermes at Zeus’ institagion, was to decide which of three goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) was the most beautiful. Paris chose Aphrodite and, by this decision, caused the later eruption of the Trojan war as the slighted goddesses decided to retaliate. This tale, of course, is an extreme abbreviation.

Graves argued that the tale was formed from icon created in the matriarchal age in which the Tripple Goddess is shown; and one of them is handing an apple, sacred to the Goddess, to a shepherd. Graves emphasizes that the three are not competitors but persons of a single being. Obviously the image shows the hand-off of an apple: a man’s hand, a woman’s, both touching the apple in the act—but nothing showing who is giving to whom. In one tradition the power of blessing—with the sacred apple—is that of the feminine. In the other, the power is with the male.

Similarly, the same icon is the source of the tale in Genesis in which woman (Graves calls Eve “the Mother of all Living”) gives an apple to Adam. But here the female’s action is interpreted as disobedience of the male figure of God the Father. And Graves saw this as an instance of iconotropy.

Quite amazing things turn up when the rare bird lands. And sometimes the answer is very obscure indeed if one’s rather random walk through literature, sacred and heretical, produces words no one ever uses anymore.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

DIA: Elusive Coherence

We live in a catch-as-catch can world. On two earlier occasions I’ve mentioned the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) (link, link). It has the misfortune, now that Detroit is in bankruptcy, of being municipally owned. To satisfy the city’s $18 billion in debt, the holdings of the DIA, valued at around $1 billion, may be sold. The picture here, however, is more complicated than would appear. We all think of the DIA as the museum. But things are otherwise.

The DIA, per its own June 30, 2013 financial report, is a 501(c)(3) not-for profit corporation. The first of its several purposes is to “Assist the Arts Commission of the city of Detroit (the City) with the operation of the Museum under contract with the City.” In other words, the DIA does not own most of the art the DIA shows; the City does. The same report also states explicitly that “the City holds legal title to certain museum assets, including artwork.” Evidently that title is to most of the DIA’s holdings; the DIA’s financial report itself only shows total net assets of $176 million. Furthermore, according to news reports, DIA may have to sell art up to a maximum of $500 million to satisfy the City’s bankruptcy. Concerning its holdings of art, the DIA has this to say in its financial report:

In conformity with allowable museum financial statement presentation practice, the value of the art collection is excluded from the statements of financial position. Title to art objects purchased by or donated to the DIA is in  the name of the City absent contrary restrictions imposed by a donor. Such art is accessioned to the permanent collecton of the museum upon approval of the Board of the Arts Commission of the City.

The report also states that the DIA (read the City) received donated art valued at $2.1 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013—but that that sum (unaudited) does not appear in the financial report. The City of Detroit—not the DIA—also owns the building and land occupied by the DIA.

Now the state, in the person of the Attorney General of the State of Michigan, has issued a Formal Opinion (No. 7272, dated June 13, 2013. It assets that “The art collection of The Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy City debts or obligations.”

Which makes me wonder whether or not such a Formal Opinion may be overturned in the courts. Or is that the final word on the matter? If so, why is that not common knowledge?

I looked up this much of the background because a cabal of foundations, lead by the Ford Foundation, has offered the DIA $300 million to be used to satisfy some, at least, of the City’s underfunding of its pensions. The total of those underfunded pensions is $3.5 billion; therefore the $300 million is but a drop in the bucket. And yet—despite that—the New York Times informs me that the DIA may still have to cough up $500 million.

It will work out somehow. But my sense of outrageous disorder in the world keeps being confirmed. And having watched a dreadful story on PBS last night, it makes me wonder how far $300 million might go toward eradicating cholera in Haiti, evidently planted there by UN soldiers sent to keep order in that devastated region. Especially if, despite $300 million, the DIA still has to sacrifice its Van Gough and such.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tracing Kinds of Quince

The season of remembering is here—remembering the sunny days of Spring and Summer, remembering the deeper past—and such memories sometimes join. ‘Tis the season, after all, when gardeners curl up with seed catalogs.

Brigitte was looking out at the now, temporarily, melting snow and noted that our lilac bush has more than doubled in height and width since its acquisition three years ago. Then she added mournfully: “But we’ve yet to see any quince on our quince bush.” That bush joined our garden two years ago.

Brigitte’s statement then constellated—as mention of quince always does—an early period in my life, circa 1942, the year I first went to school. That happened in a small city in Hungary, Cegléd, these days with a population of 38,000. My father was briefly stationed there as a soldier. We lived in a palatial mansion then, complete with servants’ wing and two floors with exceedingly high ceilings. The pile was heated by huge stoves—which were so expensive to feed with wood that in the single winter we spent there, most of the house was shut down. And while we had stables accommodating four horses at need, a huge and several formal gardens, the toilet was out of doors—which lent winter yet other charms. But one of the charms of this place was quince. We had at least four large quince trees; they produced abundant and large fruit. Of Cegléd I remember the swimming pool we walked to—very modern—the school I attended, which was five grades in one small room, each grade with a single bench on which we sat. There were five of us first graders and I sat in the middle of the first bench. Why so small? In a moment. I also remember the main shopping street, quite near us, where I first noticed with childish wonder that women wore very high heels.

Now the quince we have—along with Monique and Theresa, one of Monique’s neighbors (which also inspired us to buy quince bushes)—turn out to be flowering quince, formally Chaenomeles speciosa. This species produces fruit similar to but somewhat smaller than the quince in Cegléd. Speciosa, at maximum height, is about 3 meters; the fruit is dark yellow. The species that grew, and presumably still grows in Cegléd is Cydonia oblonga; it is a tree that, at maximum, reaches 8 meters into the air; its fruit is much larger, pear-shaped, and green to light yellow; a tree will typically produce about 300 pounds of fruit in a season. For these reasons, I’ve wondered, since getting our shrub, if they are really closely related. It turns out that they are: Same family (Rosaceae), same tribe (Maleae), same subtribe (Malinae), and same subfamily (Amygdaloideae). They differ in genus (Chaenomeles vs. Cydonia) and therefore also at the species level.

Cegléd had a very rural feel to it in my early years; it has since developed a good deal. It appears to have been a strongly protestant city; its largest church is also the largest Calvinist church in all of Hungary; Protestantism, in Cegléd has a very big footprint, not least several huge Lutheran and another large Calvinist church. For this reason, perhaps, my father arranged for me to attend a Catholic school—and one within walking distance. Hence the small classes—and five grades taught simultaneously by a single teacher; he would spend about five minutes on one grade then shift to the next—while those left behind had some task to perform…

Reminiscing in old age in the Age of Information is often quite an active business. Thus helped by Google Maps I was rapidly able to locate the swimming pool where we had spent many sunny afternoons—and, remembering the streets we walked to get there and to get back, I also managed, more or less accurately, I believe, to vaguely to locate where we had lived. To give a feel for the look of the place, I reproduce here a photograph taken by one Károly Héda titled “View from Eötvös Square” (link). The picture is recent, but it did really look like that once. The church in the distance is Holy Cross, so Catholicism is present. But for emphasis I am showing, in the second image, the Calvinist Great Church, as it is known, of Cegléd, from Wikipedia (link).

So who was Eötvös? As best I can discover, he was probably Loránd Eötvös (1848-1919), a well-known Hungarian physicist and the inventor of the torsion pendulum used in clocks; that process uses a heavy cylindrical weight, suspended on a spring, to provide the action of a pendulum. In my search I also discovered another Péter Eötvös (born 1944) who is a well-known composer and conductor. But the square, I think, belongs to Physics.

Now back to quince again. I show here the fruit, first, of the quince tree and, next, of the quince shrub. For a look at our own shrub, I suggest you check out this earlier post (link).

Amazing, really, the paths that memory produces—much like that of a donkey going from one cactus to the next. And elaborating in detail on all the little seeds one finds in memory’s catalogue, like that torsion pendulum for instance, would easily produce a volume. But a post, today, must suffice.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Symbolic Sugar

The term came up because I used one of those punches intended primarily for punching holes through paper—so that sheets may be placed in a three-ring notebook. The device is quite good for punching holes through belts as well. Quite contrary to what I see when I issue from the shower, I seem to be getting thinner; therefore my belt must be tightened at intervals. Well, the punch had been used, since the last time, for its intended purpose, and as I cleaned out its hollow tube, bits of round papers fell out as well. “Look, confetti,” Brigitte said. And then she wondered what the word meant.

Well, it comes from a Latin word meaning “to make with,” therefore the word “ingredients” is being understood. Comfacere. The word came to be associated with light pastry and candy later. The m in com got changed to an n. Our word “confection” comes from it. In Italian this turned into confetti—and originally meant small candy thrown into crowds at festivals.

Later on it turned out that it’s a lot cheaper to toss tiny bits of paper than heavier candy. A tightening of belts, perhaps? So there you are. When they rain confetti on us, we are receiving symbolic sugar—and that’s good for an attractively low Body Mass Index. Mine is almost normal; not quite, but almost.

Friday, January 10, 2014

For Christie’s Sake!!

It strikes me as quite implausible to imagine that people delayed an hour or more because a bridge is closed would reason as follows:  “This must be my Mayor’s fault, a Democrat, who failed to endorse my Governor, a Republican. And this is what he gets. Therefore I will not ever vote for my Mayor again.” If traffic delays produced such thought, we would have recall elections all over the country every month, and nothing would get done. Come to think of it, nothing is betting done anyway.

Here is a popular Governor. His chances to run for president are now totally ruined? I’m made to think so by a press possessing the brain-size of sharks. (We learned yesterday that sharks have quite minute brains.) In 2016, yet. When I let my mind roam over attractive candidates for president, Christie does come to mind, along with Jerry Brown of California—and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With a Democratic Congress behind her, Hillary Clinton, seems to me, would also make a formidable president, but that proviso makes such an outcome unlikely. Furthermore, while certainly a wild man, but in an attractive way, Christie might just be taken at his word. He did not cause that traffic jam.

Shaking my head, moving my hands wildly. The New York Times again tells me that our Visa Card is unresponsive. We may be denied such news in the future unless we act with alacrity. Might be a good idea to let the paper lapse…

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Converging Echoes

A splendid episode of Nature on PBS last night brought us the latest news, you might say, of the Lipizzaners of Austria: “Legendary White Stallions.” The subject is close to home because, as I’ve had occasion to report quite a while back now (link), my Father was a dedicated patron and practitioner of dressage, the peak, you might say, of equestrian pursuits. Yesterday’s program (a rerun, I can’t find when it first aired) centered on the horses, their breeding, training, and ultimate retirement. This is a highly traditional activity, evidently very well funded, and seems to preserve, but in a fully-alive version, something grand that, surely even when it began, in 1565, in Vienna, would have seemed as strange and wonderful as it still appears to us today. This, then, is one of the echoes from the past I want to note.

The other begins with the program itself, Nature. Nature is the production of THIRTEEN, the New York-based PBS station. A lonely tree in what appears to be a desert-like region is its signature. I forget how this linkage got established, but I can never see that picture without immediately recalling a mini-series of the 1980s called The Flame Trees of Thika—indeed thinking, when I see it, that Nature’s logo is a flame tree. Yesterday I stood corrected. Brigitte, who is a great fan of that image, was a little startled when I called it the “flame tree” yesterday. “No, it’s not,” she said. “Thika? That’s a different sort of tree.” So off I went to check this matter out.

As always, in such situations, I was convinced that Brigitte was right, of course. Her eye for shapes is as infallible as is Pope Francis when addressing faith and morals formally. What I wished to discover is why I had made that linkage.

The first clue here was that both Nature’s tree and the Flame Trees are African. Nature’s image is an African acacia. And the Flame Trees of Thika? Well, the mini-series was made from a memoir written by Elspeth Huxley about her childhood in Kenya. Elspeth Huxley is part of the Huxleys—of whom Brigitte and I very fondly remember particularly Laura Huxley, the wife of Aldous, whose books, particularly This Timeless Moment and You Are Not the Target helped us cope with life in the long ago. So here is another echo. But back to those trees.

I bring two images. The first, by Peter Pazucha, a retired photographer (link), shows a panoramic view of flame trees. The second is one of the covers of Huxley’s memoir itself, showing the same shapes but not quite so prominently.

So it’s all in the shape of the trees. But here is a little more. Some of the flame trees (or those so named) belong to the same family as the acacia: the Fabaceae. But the Kenyan tree is most likely the Spathodea, family of Bignoniaceae; it has red flowers that resemble flames in bloom. Odd how things sometimes resemble one another even when their physical linkages are extremely distant. But in our memories certain things converge and signal the presence of values never forgotten.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Traditional Mysteries

Close readers of the economics pages may have noticed the confirmation of Janet Yellen as Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank—and wondered why, in the stories about this event, pundits are treating the lady as a de facto Queen of Finance in the United States—indeed, as one put it, the most powerful woman in the world.

After all. After all, if we stick strictly with the mechanics of the thing, the policy set by the Federal Reserve Bank is expressed in the decisions taken by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). That body is made up of twelve members and reaches decisions by voting. Seven of its members, including the chair, are members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Five other members are drawn from the twelve presidents of the twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks of the United States. One of those, however, has a permanent seat on the FOMC, the president of the NewYork Federal Bank. The other four serve for one year and are then replaced by another four drawn from regional federal banks.

What we have here, in other words, is a straight-forward democratic arrangement in which the Chairwoman of the Fed could just as likely be on the losing as on the winning side of a particular vote. Why then is she treated as the de facto “monarch” of monetary policy.

Well, the simple answer is that she actually is—now that she is confirmed. But the reason for that has little to do with voting and everything to do with the gradual evolution of a tradition. Let me try to describe this.

The simplest way to put this is that the FOMC is governed by consensus—not really by majority vote. The consensus forms around the person of the Chair. In the course of FOMC meetings, members of the committee may disagree with the Chair and may also express their dissent in so many words; but when it comes to a vote, they will back the Chair. It is customary for all Governors to vote unanimously with the Chair—and to be joined by the President of the New York Fed in doing so. That produces a majority of eight, each time. But the tradition at the FOMC is that no no more than two members may dissent. This is described as the “informal policy of the FOMC.” Dissents, some say, are intended to signal potential changes in policy in the future.

It’s quite amusing, in a way, to read how academic observers of this process attempt to explain it. At best they merely describe how it has gradually come about. As for the Why of this curious centering of effective power in one person, students of the process fall back on equally nebulous phrases. The importance or prestige of the office has gradually increased. A “tradition” rules this community; it is made up of, after all, highly qualified experts who’ve spent entire working lives in or around banking and finance. They all abhor the evil consequences of signaling rifts to the Market. The real decisions are worked out in privacy and out of the glare of journalistic light. Therefore, you see. And, presumably, whoever is appointed to be Chair of this institution will be reliably a member of this community and will uphold the traditional way. She or he will move to a vote only after the decision has been sanctioned by consensus.

No wonder, then, that chairs of the Fed are by any measure the most careful speakers in public—and their words are subjected to careful parsing as if they were an omen or issued from some being beyond the clouds.

It remains a fact, nonetheless, that this very sane and deliberate tradition of governance—at least of a part of our public affairs—could break down and, given time enough, someday will do so. Not, we hope, under Janet Yellen. May she rule in peace.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Closing Bracket

Brigitte reminded me this morning that it is Three Kings Day—Epiphany. “Ah yes,” I thought. “The sixth.” In Europe, at least if you were a child, the Christmas Season began with St. Nicholas day—not with the first Sunday in Advent. St. Nicholas day falls on the sixth—of December. As children we put our shoes on the window sill the night before and went to bed. In the morning the shoes were filled with fruit, candy and cookies; bright red paper and twigs of fir decorated the display; and for good measure each child also received a switch, to be used on our bottoms if we should be bad. And the season also ended on the sixth—of January, when the angels notified the shepherds and the Three Kings came to visit the Christ-child in his manger. That day—both for Brigitte (who lived her childhood in Poland) and for me (in Hungary), that day was also traditionally appointed to take down the Christmas tree and to store the Christmas decorations for another year. The season lay between brackets, you might say, isolated from the relentless flow of the world—thus outside of time.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let’s Kick It

It’s high time now for 2013 to kick the bucket—I mean on this blog. Until a 2014 post appears, the last year hangs around, at least in the margin. So it is time. That phrase—“kicking the bucket”—appearing in my mind, I did what I’ve done at least five times before since the appearance of search-engines. I tried to discover the origin of that phrase. Wikipedia does its best (here) but largely fails, I think. Suicide? Not very likely. The reflexive, spasmodic stiffening of leg muscles appeals to me, accompanied, no doubt, by that “last gasp.” For me the best depiction of this supposed terminal action is held in the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The kicking is done by Jimmy Durante quite early in the movie, and it looks awfully authentic.

In my childhood back in Europe, comedy put its stamp on the last day of year on the radio. Even as young children, Brigitte and I used to listen to those broadcast as bright children would, not really getting the jokes but enjoying the novelty of late, late, late-night radio listening. On my last shopping trip in 2013, also listening to the radio, I noted with pleasure that NPR had embraced that sort of programming too on the 31st. While my trip lasted, the object of the jokes was Microsoft and its famed leader, Bill Gates. And the snippets were extremely funny.

Therefore it’s appropriate to part with that year lead by Jimmy Durante. Like all real comics he was a contrarian figure who managed to delay his own passing by almost a whole month. He kicked the bucket in actuality on January 29, 1980—no doubt needing to rest up, first, from his antics on December 31, 1979. Humor lifts us above the dreary fray. Our  sense of humor may well be our best gift from on High.