Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sweet and Sour

The Grosse Pointe Public Schools had put a $50 million bond issue on the ballot; it was voted on February 25. The public rejected it by a 70 percent majority. The bonds would have paid for a fiber-optic network serving the several institutions within the district; purchased computers, laptops, and tablets; and would have in addition beefed up security using cybernetics. Owners of houses like ours—which is sort of average in this district—would have paid about $230 per annum more in property taxes.

The pro-bond lawn signs said “Tech Yes,” thus causing the mind to echo back “Heck Yes.” Good slogan that. The anti-bond forces said “Heck No,” “Vote No,” or spelled it out: “Vote No on School Tax Levy.” Around here the “Tech Yes” signs were significantly more numerous, but in the vote last Tuesday the antis won a decisive victory.

Brigitte and I failed to vote; there was, you might say, some interference. But we liked the outcome. Mind you, we admire our school system here. It is one of the highest ranked district across the state, indeed across the nation. In 2009, for instance, Grosse Pointe South high school ranked in the top 2 percent of high schools academically. The district serves one of the wealthiest communities in the Detroit Metro area. What that means is that the average student probably already owns at least one computer, laptop, or tablet. And as South lets out on school day afternoons, it is dangerous to cross Kercheval at Fisher (next to our Library), because the masses of students crossing the intersection, ignoring the lights, are all staring at smartphones. The outcome of this vote, therefore, was sweet; but it felt sour.

The sour taste comes from the fact that our educational powers that be still think that genuine advance in education can be achieved by buying it—by buying things and systems. The same process is underway massively in all kinds of other communities. Buy the cyber and you’re buying the future wealth of your children. That part doesn’t taste good. And, sure enough, the District, recovering from the shock of Tech No, is planning somehow to fund this achievement of primacy in education by funding it out of current revenues. Some things, of course will have to be delayed (maintenance on hundred-year old buildings) and by eliminating extras. What extras are still left? The “sour” comes from contemplating the substitutions that lie ahead. History? English lit?  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Truce in our Time

The Olympic Games, it seems to me, illustrate the difficulties of seeing very large social events with any kind of precision, whether it is from up close or from of 5,521 miles away by television—that being the distance, using great circle navigation, between Detroit and Sochi in Russia. At the same time, what with modern media coverage, one can also get a more or less trustworthy general feeling about these games. In our case we have access, this year, to both U.S. and Canadian coverage, and we made good use of both. Our mutual conclusion this year was that the Sochi winter games came very close realizing the ideals of the Olympics. The games were peaceful; the contentious aspects, so jarring in many past games we’ve actually watched closely, were almost absent this time around.

A feature of the Ancient Olympics was the Olympic Truce. The Modern Olympics feature the same truce, officially put in place by the United Nations in 1993. The Ancient Olympics were, of course, a miniature. The games were international, but the regions interacting were all Greek. The games did not move about in those days. They were all held in the region called Ellis, in Arcadia, the southern portion of Greece, Ellis itself its north-western edge. The games were held at the city of Olympia within that region, hence the name of the games. The truce made sense, given the location of Olympia. Athletes had to travel very long distances to get there. The distance between Olympia and Athens, to take a horizontal route separating two edges of Greece, is 163 miles—hence speaking of the Ancient Olympiad as a miniature of the modern makes sense.  Localizing that distance of 163 miles? Well, the distance from Detroit to Chicago is 282 miles; see also the concluding note.

This comparison—between the little and the Big—struck us yesterday as the closing ceremonies ended. A good thing that we have a global Olympics now. Those interlocking Olympic rings? Brigitte thought they stood for continents; I had no idea, but she went and looked it up; and she had been right all along. Each ring stands for one of five regions of the world. Until 1951, the official handbook identified blue as Europe, yellow as Asia, black as Africa, green as Australia and Oceania, and red as the Americas. But since the originator of this symbol, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and co-founder of the Modern Olympics, made no such association (he chose the colors from uniforms of different countries competing in his time, 1912), the IOC removed any linkage of color to actual regions.

The meaning of “truce,” when unwrapped a little, is rather odd. The very possibility speaks to human power to transcend one level of experience and to establish, if only temporarily, another and superior level above it: to rise above violent hostilities to the level of perhaps grim but actual peace. It would at least seem logical to think that once truce has been achieved, just a small additional effort would also yield lasting harmony. If it can hold for three months—which was the duration of the Olympic Truce in ancient times—it could last four, five, six, and more, until we’ve lost all count.

Truce is a good first step. We’ve gotten that far. As far as world peace is concerned, the Bronze still seems out of reach. But who knows what the future will hold.

The root of that word, in English, incidentally, is centered on the proto-Germanic for “faith,” still almost literally present in the current German word Treue. It takes faith on both sides to make a treaty. Treaties now, faith tomorrow. God speed the day.

- - -

On horses, ships, and volors. In ancient Greece the means of transportation were by foot, on horse, or by ship—the really large ones largely rowed. To achieve global utopia, we need volors. That word comes from a pair of novels by Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1908) and The Dawn of All (1911). The first is a dis-, the other a utopia. First flight took place on earth on December 17, 1903, courtesy of Orville and Wilbur Wright. In Benson’s projections, the art had been perfected to resemble, and in many ways surpass, the age of the jet in which we make our home. As for The Dawn of All, it is a world where truce has turned to peace—through faith.

The map is from Wikipedia (link).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fatum est Datum

There are three forces which operate in the history of the world—God, fate, and human freedom. That accounts for the complexity of human history.
     [Nicolas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End]

Berdyaev does not define what he means by fate in a particular way—beyond meaning what I suppose we all think fate might mean. Pondering this statement, and the meaning of fate—and also that of complexity—made me think that fate, in this context, is that which resists our will, which is matter itself, the given. The phrase used as my title came spontaneously with the thought. Fate is the given you can’t do much about.

Or not very much—and even that only with lots of effort. Behind that title, furthermore, is the fact that I’ve just spent two hours removing a vast accumulation of built-up ice which, melting, caused a generous flow of water in our basement as is bypassed poor caulking between brick and concrete and then followed the necessary, fateful force of gravity down to our red-painted basement floor.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Secularization of Enthusiasm

While on the subject of words, I might as well record my latest discovery. As usually in English, such come about because English is a kind of Mississippi of a language, carrying innumerable words that aren’t naked, so to say, thus they don’t reveal their etymology; and they do not because they come from Greek, Latin, or yet other languages. Enthusiasm is one of those. We know what it means—and that’s it. If I look at its German equivalent, I get Begeisterung; here the etymology is clear: Geist is “spirit”; the prefix be suggest “possession,” and the ending suggests “state of.” Thus “state of being possessed by spirit.” The Hungarian is lelkesedés; here lélek is “spirit” and the suffix signals “state of being in.”

Well, per Online Etymology Dictionary, enthusiasm derives from the Greek. It deepest root is entheos, literally “in God”; in the Greek sense God would not be capitalized, thus “possessed by a god, divinely inspired” is what they meant, and, by extension, being in an ecstacy (which last means to be “out of place,” beyond the ordinary.) In English, certainly, the word had a strong religious context until the early eighteenth century—the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. With the Puritans (1650s), it took on the negative meaning of excessive religious emotion, marking a transition, you might say. These days the word has become secularized to such an extent that we enthuse about just about everything. For that reason it surprised me when, reading an essay in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Lying Stones of Marrakech, I encountered his own etymological clean-up of this linguistic fossil.

We have also, to be sure, made the first steps back to entheos already thanks to the genius that hides in science fiction. We’ve given spirit another name in Star Wars, to be sure. But you will know what I mean when I close with these words: “May the force be with you.

Sculpting Insubstantial Statues

The roots of the word legacy are two-fold but have the idea of “appointment” in common. In one sense the Latin verb legere means “to appoint by a last will”; the other is to “appoint an agent,” therefore, say, an ambassador. In both senses some actual person does something; the person makes his or her will known. A last will and testament typically disposes of accumulated wealth. And one meaning of legacy, sure enough, is that something more or less substantial is left behind. Property has this tangibility, as does money when things are working properly. Brigitte and I lived through a time, the mid 1940s, when German money, the Reichsmark, lost all value. In those days a “legacy,” even of millions of RMs, was quite worthless—except as kindling. If someone without property leaves a will, it is worth just about the same as RM 1000 was in 1945. From this meaning centered on hard wealth, our media have fashioned legacies—which every President supposedly spends a lot of time worrying about, especially in a second term. These political legacies, however, are strictly speaking quite insubstantial; they are collective memories of an administration. Being insubstantial, they may be shaped. Therefore I get images, thinking about this, of huge, vague statues of thought being hammered, chiseled, and otherwise shaped by op-ed columnists. One such attempt is in today’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd doing a little shaping of Lyndon Johnson’s “legacy.”

This last sense of legacy is a long ways from its original meaning—either as an act of appointment or as of something left behind. All the action is by others—all of them looking back. They cannot in the least change what the past has claimed and therefore is now fossilizing. They engage in interpretation and valuation—the intended purpose of which is to shape something equally amorphous: today’s public opinion.

It occurs to me quite often how paradoxical our times are. We seem to live in a materialistic era in which determinism rules, yet our thoughts are always travelling in clouds of thought and feeling most ephemeral. The real power in the United States resides in the legislative branch. Some would add that it is in the hands of those who influence the legislators rather than those who elect them. Okay. I won’t argue the point either way. But since the legislative branch is a large number of people—one might call it an abstraction, being a collective—no one bothers about the legacy of the Congress. It is a sort of fluid permanence, so where would you put down the markers? The President, who is by constitutional wording an executor of the Congressional will, is, however, deemed to have genuine power. But no amount of political science can absolutely prove that the achievements of a President were singularly personal.

What we might be engaging in these days, learning how to shape legacies, is preparing for the day when, following the curve of history, we shall actually be ruled by a single individual. Then legacies will have become just a little more substantial. We know Nero’s legacy rather well, for instance. He fiddled while Rome burned. Now if I managed to acquire, quietly, the actual fiddle Nero used, together with unquestionably solid documentation of its provenance, then I too would have acquired a genuine legacy, the kind you can take to the bank and leave to your offspring in a last will and testament.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Suits, Sponsors, Speed, and Skates

Long before the International Olympic Committee official permitted the participation of professionals,  following the 1988 games, in what had been, more or less a traditionally amateur sports event, de facto professionalization had greatly advanced. And, indeed, no wonder. World-level athletes must engaged in the sports full time. Long before professionalism took firm root, athletes had achieved a sports-related income  linked to sponsorships and such. And purists like us had seen that; by the time the IOC acted, we’d already stopped having fits out of sheer exhaustion.

To give this some dimension, in 2013, according to the website opendorse, $1.1 billion was spent on athletic endorsements (link).

Professionalization, of course, means commercialization. Significant “visibility” invariably attracts money; and where money is available, professionalization also means ever more spending on technology. The athletes’ prowess is taken for granted. So where shall we get that extra edge? From modern science and the technology that it can spin.

The current controversy over skating suits—worn by the U.S. speed skating complement—is an interesting illustration. The U.S. team, failing to win medals (thus far—team pursuit is still ahead) abandoned new suits made for them by Under Armour, INC, a major $2.3 billion sports-wear corporation. It’s not the athletes, it’s the technology.

In the Vancouver games four years ago, the U.S. team managed to get four medals out of the total of 36 available (1 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze). That was 11.1 percent of the medals. Only men won medals. In those games 177 athletes participated. The U.S. fielded 18. Thus with 10.2 percent of the participants, we got 11.1 percent of the medals—which isn’t bad. Thus far, no such luck.

According to USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, Under Armour is the chief sponsor of speed skating as well. Last Friday, the company’s stock fell by 2.4 percent. Visibility, of course, is a two-edged sword. And what is clear from this particular episode is that world-class sport is much, much more than sport. It is a kind of nexus which extends all through the economy and society. Such strange and, from a distance, barely recognizable but very firm combinations wrought by money and the media proliferate virtually everywhere. We cannot see them until something unravels; and doing something about it collectively is about as possible as influencing climate change.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Muslim Religious Wars

A while back now (June 3, 2013)—but I glimpsed it again just the other day while making order—I saw an op-ed column by Bret Stephens in the WSJ titled “The Muslim Civil War,” subtitled “Standing by while the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out invites disaster.” The story deals principally with the Syrian conflict, but it got me thinking—and recalling. I recalled a post I’d put up on January 18, 2013 here (link) entitled “The Muslim Reformation.” In that post I noted the age of the Muslim religion and compared it with that of Christianity—and concluded that what we’re now witnessing is an intra-Muslim conflict of a religious nature comparable to the religious wars that plagued Europe for a period of 124 years following the Reformation.

These wars, briefly listed by Wikipedia (link), extended from 1524 until 1648. They began with the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525) and include the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that involved the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Bohemia, France, Denmark, and Sweden.

In my earlier post I noted that the Muslim religious wars are viewed by us through a lens formed by modern ways of thought in which religion is, at most, a minor factor used in propaganda. All is about economics and power. But while secular concerns are always present in all wars, the deeper motivation is what sets the tone. Therefore, I suggested, even if the Americas and Europe suddenly disappeared, as if by magic, the Muslim civil wars would continue on exactly as they are doing now. Whether we stand by or participate should be guided by our sober and narrow self-interest. To misunderstand these wars as the yearning in Arab hearts for democracy and free markets is to misunderstand the current turmoil.

If my sense of history is at all on target, the great religious wars of civilizations are followed, in due time, by secularization, heralded roughly a hundred or so years after these wars have run their course by an Enlightenment. In 2214, give or take, Arabs might be agitating for democracy. Right now something else is happening.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Country Standings

Four years is a long time. Every four years, about this time in an Olympics, I get confused when I see the country rankings.  In today’s presentation, for example, the Netherlands and the United States both have 12 total medals, but Norway ranks higher than the US. In the same list Russia with 10 total medals is ranked below Switzerland with a mere 4. So then the next question is, how much weight does each medal have to produce this result.

It turns out that the various ranking schemes one can find on the Internet merely confuse the issue, as illustrated in the following spreadsheet layout:

Sochi Standings as of February 13, 2014
Rank as
Points for each kind of medal
Medal count

I’m showing the countries in rank order as reported by Sochi Olympics itself. To these rankings I’ve applied one of the ranking schemes (4/2/1) in which gold is multiplied by 4, silver by 2, and bronze by 1. There are also other schemes, e.g., 3/2/1 and 5/3/1. Notice that, in the last column, Canada should be fourth, with the US, and Russia sixth. Indeed no matter what the ranking scheme, each produces the same results. 

Well, it turns out that no “weighting” is used at all. What actually happens, I discovered, is that the results are subjected to a sorting algorithm with five parameters. The data are sorted by (1) gold count, then (2) silver, then (3) bronze, then (4) total metals—and if two countries are identical at that point, the last ranking is (5) alphabetical. No “points” or weights need to be applied—and Excel does a right fine job.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Olympic Curlicues

Curling is my most favorite winter sport in the Olympics. I watch the sport in other years as well thanks to an accident. Both in Minneapolis and later in Detroit, we’ve had access to Canadian television, and Canada is the curling-Mecca of the world.

Now comes a story in the Wall Street Journal  titled “How Russia’s Plot for Mercenary Curlers Failed.” (Yes. Rather milking the WSJ for posts today, but it’s a special season.) Evidently, a while back, at the Vancouver games, Russia decided to achieve medal-status in curling at Sochi. Its powers-that-be decided to hire high-ranking players and coaches from Canada and to give the players Russian citizenship when the time came. Internal resistance in Russia foiled this attempt; the Russian curlers we shall see this year (if they managed to get into the run-offs) will have been born (rather than born-again) Russians.

This got me thinking. The first thought was that Russia shouldn’t have hired Canadians; instead it should’ve hired some modestly competent Chinese coach, and never mind the sport. The Chinese know exactly how to excel in any Olympic sport they target. They’ve got the largest possible population from which to choose potential talent, and Communism (of late jettisoned by Russia) still helps them persuade the talent to undergo the herculean labors required to succeed. This then led to the second thought. The most potent tool for achieving Olympic Victory is no doubt Communism—recall, as Brigitte suggested, the East Germans’ always stellar showings while they called their country the GDR. The “free market” model just doesn’t cut it—not in the minor sports. Something more muscular is needed, like Communism.

Today Norway leads with 11 medals and Russia has 7. One of Russia’s medals comes from a South Korean named Victor An, a born-again Rusky. We laughed: All these nation-states competing at Sochi. And one truly International Competitor: Russia. For all we know their best talent has been recruited from every country in the world.

HT to Brigitte for flagging this story for someone who rarely gets to the sports page even in Olympic times…

The P Stands for Peru, the O Comes from Bolivia

I knew about the nightshade plants, family of Solanaceae, while I was still a child. It was the time of the transition from World War II to peace. We were in Germany then, emigrants from Hungary. I was learning German, and the word, Nachtschatten Pflanzen, made some big impression on me. At a certain age one thinks about new words—and sometimes that habit becomes permanent. There was an oddity about shadows at night, something oddly eerie.

I’ve always associated nightshades with what we call Latin America today. It wasn’t until the Internet made quick research rather easy that I learned, in my seventies, that Solanacea are found on every continent except Antarctica. The South/Central American imprint in my mind comes from the fact that these plants reached their greatest diversity there. All those we naturally associate with the family—tobacco, tomato, potato, chili and bell peppers—originate from that realm. Of that list, certainly these days, tobacco alone has a sinister reputation, but for me they all spell delight. The peppers, I think, are not routinely so classified in the popular mind. And the other day we’d come to wonder whether the potato belonged there. I thought so, but asked how certain I was, I said that I was very strongly inclined to think so, but I wasn’t dead certain.

Well, the potato comes from Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia, its domestication dating back a good while by any measure, between 8000 and 5000 BC. Another thing that happens over extended periods of time, in a human being, is that memory decays. It was only after learning this, again, that I remembered once studying the almost bewildering varieties of potatoes that had once flourished in South America. Of these the common types available at Kroger are the minutest tip of an iceberg—but represent the great mass of all potatoes grown.

Looked at through a geological lens, the potato has done rather well considering the remoteness of its arising at such great distances from the center of human population density. A snapshot taken  in 2011 indicates that China grew the most potatoes in that year, followed by India and Russia—representing 43 percent of the world’s crop, 374,400,000 metric tons. Pretty good showing for a plant growing in nightshade.

Genetically-Modified Lit

A story in the Wall Street Journal today tells me that Tor Books (part of Macmillan now) has established a collaboration with NASA to produce science fiction. To quote: “The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.”

“Aha,” I thought. “Genetic modification in literature has now reached visibility.” Such things, of course, go back a long time. Writers who produce books based on publishers’ tightly written formulae are as old as certain popular romance fiction series. I recall once seeing very elaborate specifications—up to some 12 or more points described as “must” contents—for each of some five different sub-categories of romance fiction by one publisher. The process also began in science fiction much earlier. At least twenty years ago, one publisher approached me to write sci-fi novels for them based on specific content. I turned them down.

Consider the parallels. Literary talent is clearly in-born, present early. It is shaped by the person’s family and life experiences and indirectly by his or her times and circumstances. The works produced echo their producers and their times. Now to modify this natural talent from the outside artificially so that it will produce a uniform “fruit” matched to “market demand” in look, feel, sound, and smell is quite the same thing as genetically modifying all manner of agricultural products so that they will appeal to the Kroger and Safeway shopper instantly. The taste is sometimes off. Just recently Brigitte said something rather startling—quite spontaneously. She was eating an oddly shaped strawberry and said: “Amazing, actually. It almost tastes like a strawberry.”

Almost. Yes. Almost.

Full disclosure. Long ago Tor turned down my Ghulf Genes (the novel), despite efforts by my agent to get it read. I never imagined that, at some future time, I might be glad that they did.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Two Footprints of the Information Age

At a DSO concert held at a nearby church a short while back, we sat (as usually) in the front row of a high balcony, just above the orchestra. That DSO stands for the Detroit  Symphony Orchestra. From our high perch we could easily survey the largely elderly crowd of music lovers—but here and there some young people too. I noticed that an elderly gent in the audience, waiting for the performance to begin, was operating a laptop computer. This made me curious. A More careful surveying revealed several others looking at pads and a larger number, here and there, were staring at or texting on smartphones.

This came to mind again yesterday when one of our morning conversations ranged over that topic so central to the elderly, be they Brigitte and me or, say, Miss Marple musing in Agatha Christie’s imagination.

I myself do not remember a time “before the telephone,” but you had to be a doctor to have one in the house. My grandfather was one—and I clearly remember that it once rang, and, for a joke, I got to go into a dark hallway and answer it. My memory is that of a strange sound coming from the black thing I was almost too little to hold—and its earpiece was several times the size of my ear. Buzzing and echo and what seemed to be a voice…

Remembering such things, we were soon making lists of all the extensive branchings of telephone and radio—of communications generally—that had sprouted since. Eventually we started toting up the costs of these activities tools and services too: cable and internet, computers and software, some of that software purchased yearly, like Norton’s antivirus immunization shots, cell phones and the disappearance of telephone boxes at Kroger and Safeway where, once, I used to call home for updates of my shopping list; indeed I used to head out making sure I had some quarters; these days I carry a Verizon phone with its own contract and regular monthly charges. But I digress. Part of that list includes movie rentals and DVR machines (which replaced the tape players) and a gaggle or pride or expense (not a bad generic for the category) of peripherals, cables, disk backups, portable hard drives smaller than my thumb, and a basement full of fossils filling wire baskets and boxes—obsolete electronics one simply hates to dump.

I got to wondering how much we actually spent on things like that. It seemed to me we spent a lot. And from that feeling comes my headline today. The communications age has two footprints. One is huge and one is relatively small. Turns out that I was confusing one with the other.

The large footprint comes from the importance communications services represent—and especially in the life of the elderly—and of the young. The failure of the internet is emotionally almost as bad as losing power; when the DVR misbehaves, somebody here makes energetic moves to restore the status quo, practiced in the art of applying the electronic equivalent of a Heimlich maneuver; it’s that important. Indeed it is important enough so that our collections-challenged but much loved little library is annually devoting more and more space to computers for patrons to use—instead of preparing to serve us with more words on paper when the terrorists finally take away our dreamtime.

Now the small footprint of the communications age turns out to be its total cost. Data on expenditures for internet, cable, cell phone services, movies, and such are strewn about the web; and they do tend to converge on a certain number but obviously leave much of the actual cost out. Using such methods (our own numbers are much higher), one sees a value of approximately $125 per month. I decided to look at national statistics, available from the Census Bureau’s Consumer Expenditure survey, to get a more general view. It turns out that, in 2012, the average household expenditure on communications (equipment and services both) comes to $185 per month; Canada, by the way, reports exactly the same figure collected the same way. Of this total $103 are accounted for by telephone, $82 by a category called Audio and Visual Equipment and Services. In 1989, the total was $83 per month (telephone $47, A/V $36). More to the point here is the percent such numbers represent to total household income. That percentage is the “footprint.”

It turns out that in 2012 the average annual gross household income was $65,596—and the Information Age claimed a mere 3.38 percent of that. That footprint was smaller in 1989—but not by much: 3.18 percent.

Huge impact on lifestyle, a quite small one on income. Everything depends on point of view.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ode to an Ad

We found an ad that shows a farmer
Surveying vast worlds of green.
Far away a lowly mountain
Bows before his stern, commanding
Gaze. All’s in order, all’s control
Here, endless rows and rows and rows
Of green extend out to a vague,
A dim horizon. This isn’t nature,
It’s something more, a kind of manmade
Screen where every gene is modified
And only bits of puffy cloud
Exhibit in a timid and thus halting
Manner a touch of spontaneity.

The theme is “How the world advances,”
 (To where, one wonders, to what end?)
The way has naught to do with
Fertilizers, genetic tricks
Or weed control—though such are quite
Visible here. Rather, to our
Surprise, the deeper secret of
Control, the right to gaze emperor-like
Over a great domain, lies in tight reins
Held in firm hands over Invisibles
Like price of crops, the weather, and
The satanic dance of interest rates—
All achieved by riding on a relatively
Newly-crafted magic carpet—
Trading on the derivatives market.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Shrinking Recess, Thinning PE

Sometimes all the news that’s fit to air can give one a rude shock. News on PBS (I think) the other day informed us that Recess is shrinking in elementary schools and so is physical education (PE); in many districts PE has been eliminated outright. Here is a link to a presentation by the Center of Public Education (CPE) on this subject. Why is this happening? Well, more time is needed for English/Language Arts and Math (presumably to meet testing requirements) and the time must come from the presumably useless categories—or the expensive ones. PE is expensive and, in these days of seemingly skyrocketing bullying, Recess must be supervised. What shrinks or thins will disappear.

Per CPE’s article, in the 2001-2008 period 20 percent of school districts (translates into 1 in 5) have reduces recess; 9 percent of districts have reduced PE.

Madness—in the form epidemics of experimentation—has long plagued education. Is this another enzyme on the loose? Or does this one come from “government’s too big, so let’s cut out the basics.”

So what is growing? Childhood obesity.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Right Mix

One of the maddening aspects of human experience is that no belief system rooted in a single, clear concept ever works effectively—but that the “clear concept” nevertheless has genuine value. An example of this is liberty and the various doctrines that it has engendered beginning with the Enlightenment: laissez-faire, human rights, libertarianism, and the like. Evidently, the word “libertarian” was initially used in 1789 by William Belsham, an English political thinker. He opposed those who held a “necessitarian” view.” This contrast sums up the whole problem: human’s have free will while, simultaneously, we have to live in the realm of necessity. We can no more advocate a purely libertarian approach to ordinary life than we can support, philosophically or otherwise, a purely deterministic view. In both cases either one will immediately energize its opposite. Every movement of our body involves the flexion of some and the extension of other muscles. Maddening. But when it comes to muscles, we do not split into camps of flexarians and extensionists. We happily shovel snow, go up and down the stairs, and stir the tea using both in harmony.

Curiously libertarianism, unfolding in various ways, not least into democracy, developed at the same time as modern science—both born of the same rationalism. But science has fathered scientism, which is pure determinism; in that view it swallows free will, which becomes an illusory epi-phenomenon: humans are just puppets pulled by the springs of stimulus and response.

The unavoidable data of reality, which contain both real freedom and undeniable necessity produce the maddening situation in which keeping it simple renders one stupid. Laissez-faire worked reasonably well when society was still firmly anchored in the traditional synthesis of Christendom. As that creative impulse cooled, monarchy added more and more necessities to those supplied abundantly by nature—and these had to be shaken off. But in our day the traditional synthesis has decayed to such an extent that chaos grows all around us and yet more liberation seems downright crazy. I need not go far for an example. I just ponder watching a three-minute part of the recent Superbowl half-time show.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Upbraiding Modernity--Then

Thou has traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be u’sd, and, contrary to the King, his crown, and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill.

The speaker here is Jack Cade, a rebel, addressing one Lord Say. The work is Shakespeare’s King Henry the Sixth, Part II, Act 4, Scene VII. The play is thought to have been written in 1591. King Henry VI lived his forty-nine years on earth between 1421 and 1471.

The context of this entry. I used a quote from Christina Rossetti in the last post then followed that up by reading other Rossetti snippets to Brigitte. We got to talking about linguistic changes between the nineteenth century (Rossetti’s years were 1830-1894) and today. She sounds quite modern. We went on then, armed with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, to see how much had changed since the sixteenth century. And Mr. Cade’s little railing just happened to come up.

We both laughed. Ah yes. Arsen’s endless railings about Modernity are a mere echo of what came naturally to Shakespeare—looking back about a century himself. “You must put that up,” said my Editor in Chief—just seconds before the same thought would have occurred to me too. But then, you see, she is fast!

Snow on Snow

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.
  [Christina Georgina Rossetti, A Christmas Carol]

Is one’s sense of extreme weather a function of age? Does frequent and massive snowfall produce dreads in men with creaky joints as shoveling is yet again ahead? So it seemed this morning. Snow on snow today, but in the here and now, and in such dense veils that I could barely make out the garage this morning at eight. It’s all way too much, I thought this morning. The “too much” included the contents of the Wall Street Journal; I only found it after groping about in the snow; it had been buried on our front step and well enough so that even its shape had been obscured. My rational self, which always only echoes the patterns of the past, put a sarcastic stop to such gloomy reflections. “Look it up,” it said. “I bet it’s not even a record-setting season.” So I did.

Well, it turns out, that snow on snow this year is certainly record-breaking. I looked up snow fall in December and January for 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14. Two years ago we had 15 inches of snow in these two months, a year ago 19.4 inches, and this year 56.5 inches (link). These numbers apply to the Detroit Metro area generally; we know from Monique that results were even more extreme on the other side of the Metro.

For once the rational self was wrong—and Brigitte as usually right. Therefore writing about snow seems justified by the actual results out there, carefully measured by the Weather System.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Flowers Are Bought

On this day flowers are bought. My phrasing, obviously, is up-to-the-minute modern. It was in one of Theodore Dalrymple’s fascinating if also depressing books that we first encountered this sort of “objective” phrasing—when, writing about some man who had stabbed some relative,  Dalrymple quoted the man as saying that “The knife went in.” Well, on this day flowers were bought, and the very distant phrasing arises from my overhearing a conversation between wife Brigitte and daughter Michelle. They were discussing the role of birthdays in the life of women, and Michelle suggested that “We ought to return to the old days—when people didn’t know how old they really were. I think it should start after you turn thirty.” Flowers were bought because a recurrence in time took place. Whose it was will remain a secret, and the number of the recurrence is safe with me.

Flowers were bought because, on this occurrence, the retail system user has inexplicable urges to hasten the arrival of Spring. But the flowers were bought in the middle of a Winter Weather Advisory, which means that the snow was coming down and, once down, was piling up—so much snow the driver barely saw that the lights were blinking yellow, which they do on Saturdays on the thoroughfare that got labeled Moross.

There are no agents in this modern world. Cyclamens do not know their own name. No one waters them, but the water sprinkles down.