Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Butterfly Gallery

This time of year, in recent years, we like to remember the brighter season when butterflies are visiting. With that I thought I’d end November on that same note. To be sure, with the move now well behind us, we have also left behind our Butterfly Ranch (Rancho Mariposa). But we are at least mentally preparing to see our friends at this new location too—and to make it welcoming to Order Lepidoptera.

Meanwhile, of course, butterflies are still in motion—constant motion, you might say—on the ceiling of our sunniest upstairs room. As a mobile. Air heated by our floor-hugging radiators keeps them turning, turning near the ceiling, and what with the fascinating design of this genre of sculpture, kinetic sculpture as it is called, our paper creatures exhibit a quite life-like behavior. They move so much that it was quite a labor to find one photograph of a dozen that showed them all fully.

We got to wondering about mobiles. We’re very fond of them. Another, with swallows, hangs downstairs. Who made the first of these? I was dubious of discovering a single inventor, but Brigitte had a name in mind if only it would come up with it. With that encouragement, I went on a search and discovered Alexander Calder (1898-1976), an American sculptor, and the originator of this genre. The first mobiles of the sort shown here, thus moved by currents of air, date to 1931. They were named “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp, a fellow artist, in 1932; thereafter Calder classed his immobile sculptures “stabiles.” Mobiles took the world by storm after a 1946 showing in the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris.

We live in a world of mobility—and mobile device. Ours, sure enough, go back to about the time of our birth. The kind you carry around with you, to make you mobile, are a bit too complicated for such as us entirely to master.

Fata Morgana

We’re late in the fourth year of the Media-named Arab Spring as it touched Egypt. The popular uprising that resulted in Hosni Mubarak’s resignation began on January 25, 2011, in Tahrir square in Cairo. Since then Mubarak resigned  (February 11, 2011), Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the presidency (June 30, 2012); he was ousted from office after a year (July 3, 2013), replaced by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (June 8, 2014) who, like Mubarak, is a general. Today the Egyptian court trying Mubarak for his crimes as a ruler dropped all charges against him, members of his family, and his top associates. The demonstrations that immediately erupted appear to have been put down promptly. And we’ve still nearly two months to go before the fourth year is over.

When Arab Spring began, The Guardian, in a February 5, 2011 story, had this to say (link):

25 January is a date that will be forever remembered in Egypt. That was the day when the Egyptian people decided to end the country’s last pharaonic dynasty with a people’s revolution. 

I genuinely wonder if that date will really be remembered—considering that this revolution withered on the vine—this despite the fact that for a brief spell the Muslim Brotherhood, which is at least in part representative of Egypt’s Muslim population (94.7% of total), succeeded in gaining but not in holding on to power. The “people’s revolution,” to use The Guardian’s words, represented a small portion of the 5.3 percent, with perhaps a few percent of secular Muslims thrown in.

The Guardian’s lead is the sort of thing that caught my eyes early on and caused me to keep following the twists and turns of this story since. I am no more fond of military dictatorship than the next guy, but what interests me is our own Western faith in the inevitability of Progress. It is that faith that labeled this whole affair an Arab Spring. It has turned out to be a kind of a mirage. And living now in what looks like the slow-motion shatter of democracy here—or its transmutation into something quite alien—makes the whole notion of “exporting democracy” to other totally unsuitable realms, like Afghanistan, seem so benighted. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Old Soldiers and Old Habits

Brigitte was clipping papers this morning early when two thoughts occurred to her. The first was: “I’m such an inveterate clipper.” The second—which is quite natural with her—was to wonder about the etymology of that word, inveterate.

Sure enough, telling me about it, and asking what my guess was—“And just tell me, don’t look it up yet!”—she provided her own guess at an etymology. It was that that veterate portion might have something to do with veterans. My own clumsy attempt is not worth wasting time on. She was quite right.

And that is because the word veteran comes from vetus (generic veteris) meaning “old, aged, advanced in years; of a former time.” This much courtesy of Online Etymology Dictionary. By a slight twist and turn, the root is used in inveterate as meaning “of long standing” and therefore “chronic.” The “in” here means “of.” Brigitte is a paper clipper going way, way back. Old clippers never die, you might say, they just snip away…

Which made me wonder about that phrase. Here is what seems to be its origin. I found it here. General Douglas MacArthur used the phrase and made it newly famous. As always with true wisdom, it had is roots in everyday life, here of soldiering. The text follows:

Old Soldiers Never Die

There is an old cookhouse, far far away
Where we get pork and beans, three times a day.
Beefsteak we never see, damn-all sugar for our tea
And we are gradually fading away.

cho: Old soldiers never die,
        Never die, never die,
        Old soldiers never die
        They just fade away.

Privates they love their beer, ’most every day.
Corporals, they love their stripes, that’s what they say.
Sergeants they love to drill. Guess them bastards always will
So we drill and drill until we fade away.

Another and perhaps more authentic version (it dates from 1900 and was written by an anonymous soldier) is to be found here.

It Was a Feudal Vote

The business news today was OPEC’s decision to keep producing oil—rather than curbing production to force the price of oil back up. Nor surprisingly investors fled the oil producers and shifted their money to the oil users. Investors belong to one camp, OPEC to another: Investors are the flag-bearers of “capitalist economies,” OPEC is one member of another aggregation, that of the “market share economies.”

I last had occasion to comment on this subject back four years ago (here) when I contrasted “Feudal and Capitalist Economies.” That time I was contrasting Japan and the United States and said: “I characterized the first as ‘feudal’ because it tends on the whole to optimize in favor of large ‘tribal’ aggregates, communities—and the other as ‘detached from the community.’” I also said: “Market share economies aim at control and stability. Capitalist economies aim at maximum profit; they enter and leave markets based on gains to be realized, not to produce values in the long run.”

It’s not as if I favored tribalism. My emphasis is on community. The detached nature of capitalism, meaning its absolute focus on profit, makes it entirely unaware of community, large or small; and in those situations even tribalism is better.

OPEC is focused on maintaining its share of the market—and never mind the profits of its individual producers.

The odd thing about this entire phenomenon (the last fill-up at COSTCO cost me $2.73 per gallon) is that consumption has managed to drop enough across the world for such a thing to happen at all. The world’s public, at least in the aggregate, has been holding back on its consumption—not least driving less after losing a job. But oil so interpenetrates modern life that even a small refusal to consume can cause oil to plummet—and investors to scramble for more profitable stocks.

Monday, November 24, 2014

First the Stoics...

Brigitte sent me a link to an article, titled “The rise of modern Stoicism” by Joe Gelonesi. It is part of The Philosopher’s Zone here. The subject has been in the air around here for a while now—ever since Brigitte bought Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire back in the Spring of 2013 and then we both read and discussed it over a period of months, with particular focus on the Stoics. The book is subtitled Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics.

The strong impression I carried away from that experience, particularly from the study of late Roman Stoicism, is how the decaying Roman civilization embraced that philosophy, how widely it spread, and how it laid the foundation for the very smooth acceptance of Catholic Christianity in those realms. Christianity gave that rational, if also transcendental, philosophy a genuine life. The subject is worth pursuing as an antidote to the chaos that now seems to be spreading almost virally.

When things go too far, the answer is almost always already present. Thus, while selfie sticks rise into the air, the (call it) re-moralization of society is also taking place. Concerning that last phrase, it occured naturally: we both also read a book, around about the same time, titled The De-Moralization of Society, From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Lifts the mood on a gloomy if warmer November day dark with a low pressure system and half-hearted rain.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Grand Canyon Moment

When looking for pictures of a selfie stick yesterday, it seemed to me that a preponderance of photos showed Asians. That in turn reminded me of a Grand Canyon Moment in the 1960s. Of that in a moment. But first, let me say a little more about the selfie stick and all those Asian faces.

It turns out that the device I featured in yesterday’s post was invented in the United States, perhaps in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo is the address of Fromm Works Inc., the corporate entity that produces the QuickPod. That product appears to be the original selfie stick, invented by the company’s president, Wayne Fromm. It dates from 2004. Fromm Works is also the originator of many other very clever products, mostly aimed at children. So why is that product, and its look-alikes, so popular with Asians? One possible answer is that Alibaba, the Chinese Google-Amazon, promoted them heavily.

My own thought associations, linking the selfie stick to a Grand Canyon memory, seem to be reflecting some genuine process. Back many decades ago, when I first got into studying technology, I came across a saw to the effect that the French come up with the ideas, in the abstract, the Americans commercialize them, and the Japanese flood the market with them. Things have changed since then, but some such process is still going on.

Now my Grand Canyon Moment is told in a few words. I was travelling with an Austrian Engineer, a client of a company I worked for, J.F. Pritchard Co. We were doing a big job for an Austrian conglomerate, cleaning natural gas. The engineer and I travelled from Kansas City to the West Coast. On the way we stopped at the Grand Canyon for part of an afternoon. One of the places we visited was the gift shop. It was filled with Japanese tourists. They were rushing about picking up souvenirs, turning them over and looking at them, laughing madly, and then talking up a storm with further laughter. I got curious. Carefully I picked up one of the souvenirs too, turned it over as they had—and saw the cause of the Japanese amusement. Virtually every object commemorating the Grand Canyon carried the following message: Made in Japan.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Selfie Stick

If you haven’t heard of this product (we had not until this morning) it is high time to get with Modernity and invest in a Selfie Stick. The illustration I’m showing is from Wikipedia creative commons (here). The image was taken by Petar Milošević in Prague. The selfie stick is widely available from Amazon to Walmart, you might say. I saw one discounted from $21.81 to $4.19 (plus shipping) at Amazon.

The big banks all over the world are desperately trying to cause economic growth by printing more money and such. Growth is already here, if only we could promote desperately needed new products so that the public could know to acquire them.

Here is our attempt to grow the economy by making publicity waves. We shall, of course, acquire a pair of sticks ourselves, a Hers and a His, as soon as we have acquired some brand of iPhone to fit into their maws.

In the future—no doubt from Amazon, which already uses little robots to fill our many orders for books and such—will come the Selfie Bot. It will roll ahead of the user and take a constant stream of selfies as that person is doing his or her shopping. Stay alert, NSA. Here is yet another way to keep track of potential terrorists. We all are, after all, especially after seeing such products on sale…

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Mother on Inertia

My Mother understood the fundamental problem of this dimension—which she voiced around about the time when she had reached my age. She used to say, but only sotto voce and in private, that eating was disgusting. But eating was just her standing-in for anything to do with ordinary physical life; she chose that activity to make the point more sharply; because, no matter when, eating remains a pleasure and a need. She meant life-in-matter. The problem only appears when life in the valley is viewed from a point of view above it, thus from awareness, intelligence. Viewed through a materialist monism, thus from below, what you see is simply what you get, matter and matter all over again: the endless catch-as-catch-can and tawdriness of everything made temporarily neat and tidy only by massive expenditures of energy and effort; even then the daily functions of intake and elimination provide sufficient instances of grossness so that we cannot avoid eventually noticing that something is amiss.

Fighting the fundamental chaos that surrounds us—and it seems to have a powerful will of its own we call Inertia—is the principal occupation of daily life. Extraordinarily high levels of collective coordination and cooperation are required to keep that chaos at bay in the best of times. Life-in-matter is by definition conflict—of the soul against the random. Any ideology that embraces it, e.g., a free market ideology, invariably increases chaos by increasing conflict and directing energy from cooperation.

Not what God actually created. This world here is what we rightly call The Fall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ideological Shift

An interesting article in The American Conservative (Nov/Dec 2014), titled “‘Duck Dynasty’ vs Dante,” reminded me again that no really decent statistics on politics are available to the general public. Economic statistics are available; but you have to pay real dollars for political statistics. Therefore it is difficult to check, using numbers, opinions, as those in this article, that the shift in ideology in the United States represents a movement from urban to rural. I always marvel at the detail that CNN, for instance is able to show in its coverage. Such data must cost a ton of money—but the people’s right to know does not extend to a right easily to analyze those numbers.

Half-heartedly looking for some, I found at least a few numbers looking backward provided by the Brookings Institution (link). These show the shift in dominance of the House and Senate, between 1991 and 2013—thus excluding the results of the most recent election—by regions of the country.  Here is the tabulation:

Democratic Strength, in Percent, in House and Senate, in 1991 and 2013
New England
Rocky Mountains
Democratic regions

This tabulation still identifies the border states as a separate region. They are Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Delaware. Note the dominance of the Democrats in the 1991-1992 Congress (8 of 8 regions) and near dominance in the Senate (5 of 8 regions). Twenty-three years later, the dominance has swung to the other side—but four regions are still hanging on to the Democratic view of things. I show them in bold type.

I’ll look some more. One of the great puzzles, for Brigitte and me, is this general trend. People are getting poorer—and more Republican. Something’s oddly askew. Perhaps it is those gerrymandered districts. Or could it all be just Fox News?

Monday, November 17, 2014


To keep Alzheimer’s at bay, learn a new word every day. Or perhaps one every month. This month’s word is marescence. It stems from the Latin for marescere, to wither or to shrivel. The subject presents itself every fall, but the energy to dig up the facts is not present every autumn. This time I went on a search to discover why it is that virtually all deciduous trees loose their leaves more or less on schedule—thus, hereabouts in the Midwest, they are mostly down by today. But some hang on for dear life. And some keep them until well into the coming spring. Such species, among them Oaks, Witch-hazel, Hornbeam (musclewood), Hophornbeam (ironwood), some species of Willow, and American Beech display marescence, meaning that their leaves turn color but remain attached to the branches until new budding pushes them off. The evolutionary value of this tactic is debated but not resolved.

To get this list I had to find a helpful post (link) at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Endless blogs and chat rooms go on and on about leaves, but all are incomplete and rarely roam farther than the nearest oak.

Well, in the center of our large back yard rises a rather young American Beech. It still has all its leaves although, at the tip, they are beginning to turn brown. Finding the name of a tree merely by looking at its leaves is very time-consuming. You have to be retired to do it. One step leads to another. The images you see displayed above are the leaves of some of these species, in the order listed above. They suggest that my Fall raking will have its Spring complement as well. My images are courtesy of Wikipedia commons.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Leaves at Wolverine Lake

Their Huddled Masses

The 1 Percent

The occasion here is tomorrow’s second, and last, leaf-pickup by the Village of Wolverine Lake (I actually typed Wolverine Rake, so intense had been the effort). As for the 1 percent, we owe that to Monique’s careful collection of leaves when walking Katie.

Brigitte suggests that I label these pictures—particularly in the context of today’s first post—“Detroit” and “Downton Abbey.”

Home at Last

The Manners of Celebrity demands, for males at least, that the person be precisely three days unshaven, the hair artfully uncombed but not quite pasty on one side (as having just arisen from disordered sleep). The shirt must be open at the collar, the suit jacket must simply be seen to be expensive, and a ragged pair of jeans must be worn beneath.

But the above is mere celebrity—painful as it must be to live that life. The real aristocracy today lives virtually at Downton Abbey. For us, of course, the obligatory study is The Manners of Downton Abbey, available for $19.99 on DVD; it only takes an hour to master the arts; it might take longer to read Downton Abbey Rules for Household Staff ($14.99) and to teach its contents to our virtual servitors.

PBS, this time of year, well ahead of Christmas, sends us, its magazine, where our virtual aristocracy may be physically spruced up by buying all kinds of products. All Seasons of DA now available may be purchased alongside Christmas at Downton Abbey ($16.99), a raft of books to start our own DA Library (A Year in the Life of Downtown Abbey ($29.99), Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey (ditto), The Chronicles of Downton Abbey ($19.99), and The World of Downton Abbey (ditto)).

The newest addition to our growing collection is Downton Abbey Teas, 30 bags for $12.99. The categories are “Bates’ Brambleberry Tea,” “Mrs. Patmore’s Pudding Tea,” “Christmas Tea,” “Lady Cora’s Evening Tea,” “Grantham Breakfast Blend Tea,” and “English Rose Tea.” For a mere $77.94 (shipping may be free), we can have all six flavors.  The savvy buyer, however, may obtain a free sampler by buying Season Five first. Oh. These teas are a “PBS Exclusive”;  don’t waste time trying to buy these tea products at Kroger.

I’m personally much attracted by the Miniature Downton Abbey Snow Globe ($12.95), complete with a Downton Abbey Quote book titled Wise Words. And if you’re feeling contrarian, I’ll accept, with equal pleasure, the Miniature Downton Abbey Light-up Castle with sound track and Quote Book.

But, surprise, we aren’t even close to being done yet! There are in addition 26 other purchasable reminders that Downton Abbey is physically real. Of these the most expensive (unless that’s a typo) is Downton Abbey Fragrance ($244.99), the least expensive is a Round Jute/Polypropylene Storage Basket ($10.99). There is jewelry, lace, gloves, towels, and even a Downton Life Cotton Oven Kit (also $10.99); I could use one in making our croutons around here. The Downton Life Cotton Apron carries the following slogan: “My second HOME is Downton Abbey.” Well, they have our number at PBS. Obviously.

Finally, there is a kind of show stopper. It is a DVD, priced at $19.99. It is displayed right next to another DVD titled Secrets of the Manor House; the two are related. The show stopper is titled Secrets of Highclere Castle. What? Highclere Castle? What is that? Well, it turns out to be the actual setting of Downton Abbey, the actual physical place. It turns out to be a real location with a real lord and lady (Lord and Lady Carnarvon) who, mostly, expend their energies keeping it intact (link). And what a great achievement it was, for them, to get BBC to turn it into Downton Abbey. We’ll have to visit there, visit our second home, as soon as it becomes safe enough to fly again in the unreal world where we’re obliged to live in actuality.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fides in Fido and Further Flotsam

The leaves are mostly down and raked—in quantities fearfully greater than at our old house. Here it is the maples that dominate the landscape in yellow. Transitions, we hope are transitory, and a settling down should slowly set in. In any case, posts to this log have virtually vanished, what with mile-long to-do lists still to be worked. But some old habits are returning, among them reading out-loud. The book we recommend is James Galbraith’s The End of Normal. It ought to resonate with those who follow economics. Its most curious thematic—not stated so much as implied—is that the transition (yet another one), this time to the Post-Oil Age, actually began already in the early 1970s. Which brings echoes of my surprises when I realized, over the decades, reading authors who’ve been most influential in forming my own views of modernity, that the current decadence was fully alive and well in the 1930s already, before I was even born. Galbraith’s “normal” is the unbending faith of our culture in the unfailing growth in the economy, the reliable certainty of endless new waves of technological change that will continue to generate it, and a consumption culture, therefore, that will never end.

Brigitte yesterday found a rather fantastic book review, “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet,” by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books (11-20-2014) (here). It describes the next wave said to be rising, ready to make life worth living in the immediate future ahead. Worth reading if you have the stomach for it. I did not manage it—but then, of late, I’ve been suffering from (stress-related) irritable bowels. The wave is described as the Internet of Things (IoT), thus objects communicating with each other. Hold on to something firm please: it is projected as a $14.4 trillion industry by 2020.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, sure enough—no doubt to correct my total lack of faith in the future—comes an article proving that Halpern may have a real thumb on the pulse of things—comes an article on dog collars and whistles linked into the Internet so that uptodate pet owners can track their animals and measure their caloric expenditures on walks. This sort of thing—still in early stages—is sure to give new life and growth to the Pet industry, now measured at $58 billion. Our faith in Fido will get a lift from the growth of three fiercely competing companies—no doubt just the first of a whole swarm—in the dog-tracking segment of this market. Bowls that will signal when they have been licked entirely empty will follow—joining the reinvention of eggs, in the grocery business. We have, if you believe Sue Halpern, eggs in a future that will count themselves in the refrigerator and let you know, via your iPhone, when it is time to buy more eggs.

All this came crashing down on me today—when, with the lawn fully raked, my escape into the old normal was denied me. Besides that, the temperature out there is not yet entirely controllable by devices trafficking inside my blood stream informing my Internet-enabled hoodie to turn on the heat using a battery pack that doubles as my zipper and is, of course, rechargeable entirely by a wireless energy transfer that Tesla once saw in his wildest dreams.