Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Sun Also Rises…

…to the south and to the north of due East. Indeed the sun rises in the East only on two days of the year, March 20 and September 23, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

This subject came up yesterday when, discussing the tilted wind-rose on our newly acquired gazebo, I kept insisting that what Brigitte called East was really West. She kept insisting that the sun rose in the East—and never mind which way the wind-rose was pointing. I kept arguing feebly for a while until she said: “If you are right, Arsen, the sun is right now setting in the East—and you can see it for yourself by looking out the window!” Sure enough. Some windstorm had managed to turn our wind-rose helter-skelter.

Another fix-it chore goes on my list, but I rather dread having to climb up there just to correct that problem. I am as challenged by heights as I am by spherical geometry.

Herewith a graphic that shows the rather considerable deviations of sunrise from due East for the North 42nd Latitude where Detroit lies on the map.

I have this diagram from a paper published by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in 1948 and accessible here. One of the reassuring aspects of astronomy is that what was true in 1948 is still true in 2014—and will presumably still hold in 3014. Until the skies go into disarray, all’s well with the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Don't Let the Airbag Explode Over You!

Was off to have a routine medical test—but one that required, ahead of it, that I drink 80 ounces (4 large bottles) of water. We call such days Medical Day Lite. For the aftermath I had a medium-sized shopping list for Kroger. Brigitte trailed me to the driveway outside doing her usual checks. “Have you got your glasses? Keys? Have you got the list? Good. And Oh. Drive carefully—and don’t let the airbag explode over you!” I laughed and walked the rest of the way to the car as Quasimodo might. — When are these people finally going to grow up!?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

At the Root of the New Normal

To speak of “the new normal” is, you might say, the new normal. The phrase signals something negative. The speaker is comparing current conditions with a much happier one—a time of growth in every category, even such negative categories as debt. People piled on debt because they were confident that growth, progress, advancement, promotions, and good fortune would magically create the necessary funds to pay it back. And debt for some meant sales for others. More and more sales. Higher and higher profits.

The new normal signals disappointment. It’s as if, watching a pot, waiting for it to boil, we looked under it to see if the blue flame was on; and it was. So why, for Heaven’s sake, doesn’t it start to boil? Something is wrong. Is it the water, the pot, or the fire? The Laws of Progress no longer seem to hold. A fundamental change has set it. It’s the new normal.

If the gas flame is the cause of water boiling, what is the analogous driver of the economy. For the longest time—essentially since the end of World War II—economic dynamism was a given. It was the way things were: dynamic. Yes, the occasional “correction” explained why sometimes we had brief recessions, but the phenomenon, the old normal, was really Progress. The way things ought to be. So what was the source of that dynamism.

Confidence. And the root of the New Normal is—the lack of it.

Confidence is two parts faith and one part observation. It is a feeling. It also feeds on itself. It was first shaken on 9/11/2001. On that day a fundamental feeling of American invulnerability was put in question. The excessive reaction to it—proportional in size to the unrealistic faith in our superiority—has spawned a series of mismanaged wars. Meanwhile the Money Culture ignored it and produced growing inequality, the fraudulent Mortgage Bubble, and then the Great Recession. And since then, no matter what happens, it is interpreted as yet more proof that something’s wrong—so that we are now behaving irrationally about the ebola plague in part of Africa.

When for far too long a period a vast, rich society like ours has come to forget that real life is dangerous and ever demanding of vigilance, especially in good times—and that our faith should be in Something beyond our own genius—the “corrective” of our delusion will also take a while to manifest. The New Normal is an early sign of that correction. But confidence will only return when we forget about the Old Abnormal—infinite growth and progress—and turn our eyes to the Heavens. That will steady us again. And the waves of hysteria, which now characterize social life, will then gradually diminish.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Transiting with Father Brown

Sometime in June up in our old attic, packing books day after day, I chanced across a box, never even opened since our last move, in 1989. In it I encountered a thick book I still recalled owning but not having but briefly sampled. It was The Complete Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton, printed in 1982 under the Dodd, Mead imprint. I set the book aside. And since then, every evening, Father Brown has kept me company throughout the trials and tribulations of our move from the East to the West side of the Detroit Metro. The book contains all but one of the 52  Father Brown stories, the first written in 1911 and the last, “The Mask of Midas,” in 1936; that last is not in the collection but may be read here.

I am still not finished with the book. I usually read it before going to sleep; what with the fatigues of the move, it has taken me two or three days to finish each story. I’m now at around page 700, a few more to go before 993 and the end is reached; already, however, I’m feeling twinges of sadness that this occupation will eventually end.

Chesterton’s life, which began May 29, 1874, is almost continuous with my own. He died on June 14, 1936, thus 48 days before I was born on July 31, 1936. His views on the world as they developed over time might be characterized as a resistance to modernity in the name of the timeless values that Christendom represents. Thus they match my own, as they in turn developed over time—passing through very similar phases.

Perhaps this is just an impression of mine born of ignorance, but I never thought of Chesterton as a convert to Catholicism—perhaps because he did not have any linkage to the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others). But he was. He came from a Unitarian family background, became an Anglo-Catholic thanks to his wife Frances’ influence, and a full-fledged Roman Catholic at age 48.

What lies ahead, for me—consoling me for the end of the current book—is reading such non-fiction titles of his as Heretics and Orthodoxy and his novels.

Those who know Father Brown only through two major television series, will be a little puzzled by Chesterton’s actual stories. Virtually all TV episodes make use of the Father Brown character—with one or two appearance, as well, of the criminal-turned-detective Flambeau—but they use new stories written for the modern public. The first such was a 1974 series with 13 episodes by the British ITV. The second appeared here in 2013 and in 2014 (20 episodes, BBC1), with a new season projected for 2015. Father Brown is true to Chesterton’s conception of him, but the plots lack the deeply philosophical, and indeed theological, twists and turns that make the actual Father Brown stories so interesting.

What stuck me most forcefully during the last few months of seeing things through Father Brown’s eyes is that Modernity, as Chesterton then saw it, has pretty much ceased to be the actively growing and largely triumphant movement that it still was in his day, having become, in my old age, a growing shatter in which its chief doctrine of progress is crumbling from its clay feet upward.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Celebrity Products

I first encountered the curious phenomenon of product loyalty writ large when I bought an Apple II Plus computer circa 1980. What I’d really wanted was a Radio Shack TRS-80, but I could not justify its stiff price. The Apple was more affordable. In my efforts to learn how to use that product, I got involved with an Apple User Group and read various trade magazines centered on Apple products. To my surprise I found myself mingling with what felt like members of a tribe or of a cult.

In many ways the Apple II+ was an incomplete sort of product when I bought it. I had to purchase a special card for around $300 just to make it display 80 characters on its screen—and I chose that route because, even with that extra expenditures, it still cost less than the TRS-80. Nor did the product have a very long official life. It was only produced for three-and-a-half years (6/1979-12/1982). Then came the Apple IIe (1/1983), then the Macintosh (1/1984), and so on. I bought one of each of those as well but then, thanks to external influences—namely Brigitte’s work environment at Gale Research—I got to know the IBM PC and parted company with Apple for good. It became obvious to me that Apple was running a strange new kind of company in which the deliberate obsolescing of its products was a policy—and a successful policy only because the company enjoyed a new kind of customer better described as the fiercely loyal fan.

I’d gotten into computers in search of utility. But computing had another base: people for whom owning that product was participating in a kind elite. And Apple did its utmost to foster the feeling that, being an Apple user, one was a member of a vanguard. One bought a computer, to be sure, but really joined a faith, complete with its prophet, Steve Jobs.

Now this phenomenon did not stop with the Macintosh—or even the death of the prophet  (5/2011). It has continued on with music ( ITunes, 4/2000), telephones (IPhone, 6/2007) and now with presumably world-conquering apps like Apple Pay (10/2014).

I believe I am correct in surmising that Apple also, more generally, invented the Celebrity Product. Now that phrase is used in commerce—and has been so used for at least a generation—as designating products endorsed by celebrities. But the meaning I give that phrase refers to products that are owned because their ownership bestows a gilding of celebrity on the purchaser—and it matters not at all how good the product is or whether better products might be out there. Apple’s products meet this test. They did so even back when I first bought my Apple II+. Better products were already on the market. But spending on toys is never really about the toy. They’re about the Toy Plus. The Toy Plus participating in celebrity.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Second Weather

Weather might be defined as mutually interacting atmospheric and hydrospheric responses to a single major source of energy. That energy comes in daily cycles as the earth turns about its axis—and is distributed as summer, then as winter to the globe’s two hemispheres as the planet circles that source: the sun.

It used to be—back in those days when the word “economy” meant “frugality” and had not yet acquired its current meaning—that weather was the economy. And in those days no sensible human ever thought that one could manage the weather. It was a blessing or a curse. And chronic changes in regional climate could only be countered by migration. Then came the age of fossil fuels. Not in a literal way, of course, but certainly in an effective way, discovery of coal and oil introduced a new, call it second, source of energy. Not literally because the fossil fuels had all been created using sunlight too—but long ago. The consequence has been that humanity has come to imagine that economies can be managed—presumably because coal can be mined and oil extracted. More or less of it had become a matter of human effort and of enterprise.

Our own is a unique period in history, never before experienced. Incremental changes—like learning to travel by wind or to produce energy by falling water—did not really change the fundamentals, but the fossil fuels have, in effect, brought major change. We now live in a time of Second Weather. Some believe it will never end. Humanity will never run out of its second, its free, energy. This belief, anchored firmly in the concept of progress, itself the child of the Second Weather, is thought to be human ingenuity. Never mind that fossil fuels will eventually run out. Something will replace them. Technology. Like fossil fuels, it is something that can be managed—yes, even by politicians. Therefore rest easy.

Some of us doom-sayers are dubious—even as fracking fracks on. Whether it is the first or second weather we’re talking about, they are both in the realm of chance and unpredictability just because they are such monstrously huge systems that, no manner how many enticing graphics we can produce to track some minor function of either, we cannot really get beyond observation. But the illusion that we are now in charge is tempting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Third-Guessing the Second

A baseball story in today’s New York Times (appropriately, it turns out) used the word second-guessing far too often not to capture my attention. The realization came that I couldn’t actually “picture” that phrase. I know what it means—in a vague sort of way—but what does it really mean.

As always Online Etymology Dictionary cleared the matter up for me. And (that “appropriately” above comes into focus): the phrase had its origins in baseball slang. The second-guesser is that rude, loud fellow bellowing in the stands and shaking his fist at the umpire. And the umpire, OED informs me, is actually the first-guesser. That is because, in baseball slang, the umpire was once known as the “guesser,” no doubt so labeled by the same cynical people who doubted that he saw things correctly.

It surprised me further that the phrase is younger than I am, by a year, having first been put in print in 1937. The verb form of it, “to second-guess” is even younger: 1941.

Third-guessing, thus the process of explaining word origins by copying other people’s documented wisdom, is a form first introduced, here, on October 19, 2014. May it sail on…

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The CDC: Another Throw-Away Institution?

The virus was first named in 1976, thus some six years before the earliest Internet protocol came to be introduced in 1982 and before the phenomenon we now call Cable TV was fully introduced; that happened in the 1980s. Therefore we had neither cable news channels churning 24/7, nor social media, nor yet a political culture prone to mega-hysteria. Nor were we likely to give everything new the e-this or e-that designation; else, surely, Ebola, named after a river in the Congo, would soon have been transmuted into the E-Plague.

Since then, all told, 35 observations of the virus have been recorded in the 39-year period 1976-2014. Before this year, three of those observations had been made in the United States: in 1989, 1990, and in 1996. In 1990 four people developed anti-bodies to the disease in the U.S., but they did not get infected; in the other years, no humans were touched at all. And nobody died in the United States. The observations were traced to monkeys, imported from the Philipines for medical research.

Across the globe, the 35 Ebola introductions produced deaths in 30 years of the 1976-2014. Some nine observed appearances of the virus produced no deaths. Death tolls reported ranged from 1 to 431 before the 2014 outbreak, the high number in 1976. These data are reported by the CDC (link).

The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the most severe ever—and this time the plague has claimed one life on U.S. soil, that of a Liberian, in Dallas; and several Americans have been infected and are under treatment in U.S. facilities. Not surprisingly, therefore—in this age of total communications—the Hysteria is ON. The politicians are frantic in their attempt at looking active—as if doing something is the only proper answer to any crisis, whether you’re qualified to do something or not.

Alas, the political response has come to focus on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and—as I heard one politico say, at the recent “hearing” on the subject—the action, the doing, will consist in holding CDC’s feet to the fire.

The media eat this subject up like hungry vultures—in endless news stories, interviews with folk who know nothing more than I do, and in outraged op-ed pieces. The result is that yet another institution worthy of respect and admiration is being thrown to the wolves, the CDC itself. It is supposedly incompetent. The only competents among us, seemingly, are those who hold other people’s feet to the fire. I might liken them to a species of monkey that carries the virus but, fortunately?, is itself immune to the disease.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Spirit and Chance

It might just be that to see correctly great collective phenomena like Major League Baseball, one has to stay pretty ignorant of the sport and see it from a distance—and only now and then. The motto applicable here is to see the forest rather than the trees, branches, leaves, roots, etc., etc., and these sometimes at a microscopic resolution and with the help of a body of dynamically changing statistics so vast that they put the combined efforts of the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Bureau of Labor Statistics into the category of rank amateurs.

Now as for us, this is the baseball season. Always October, you might say. And then only in those years when we have what’s known as skin in the game. And though we do watch the playoffs, every other year or so, I always have to look up what a “wildcard” is; the first time the fielder’s choice is mentioned, about two seconds pass before I once more remember what that means. And Brigitte, who is as great a fan as I am this time of year, and generally has a much deeper grasp of things scientific than I do, is, however, even more deficient in understanding details as I am, so I have to explain fielder’s choice to her, over and over again.

Long introduction to saying that my impression of baseball—and its many charms—is that it is a artfully disguised game of pure chance. A few stats will make that plain. Thirty teams compete, each playing 162 games in the regular season—making for 2,430 games in all. This takes 180 days or just shy of half a year. Each game has minimally 9 innings, with a top and bottom half; each requires 3 outs to complete, each out constructed of dozens of thrown balls. You don’t make it into the Major Leagues unless you’re a very skillful player; therefore the teams are more or less on the same level of skill—skewed a little bit by money. Teams with the most  of the Green Stuff will have a slight advantage—but chance tends to smoothen than wrinkle over time. Still, the probabilities are skewed—so that the New York Yankees have more than twice as many World Series victories (27) than second-ranked Saint Louis Cardinals (10 — as of 2013). But in any particular year, the single toss of 2,430 dice produces unpredictable outcomes. True: this year’s final contenders for the World Series included second-ranked Cardinals and the fifth-ranked San Francisco Giants in the National League—but also the eleventh-ranked Baltimore Orioles and the twentieth-ranked Kansas City Royals in the American League. And it was that bottom-feeder, KC, which will compete for the World Series this year against (probably) the Giants: but betting on the Giants may prove to be hazardous to your purse. Chance rules when that other mysterious Something is missing. And that something is Spirit.

The Royals have it. Will they still have it? When the final series begins?

This year, as a family, we have plenty of skin in the game. Barbara, our daughter, lives in Kansas City. The Metro, anyway, not the political city. John, of Patioboat fame, was long a Giants fan. And when all else fails those of us who once lived or still live in Missouri would rather like an All-Missouri World Series. God willing and the crick don’t rise.