Thursday, December 31, 2015

Overlooked Solstice

What with weather more spring-like than wintery this year, I managed to overlook the passage of the Winter Solstice in midst of last-minute Christmas preparations. It happened on December 22—and daylight lasted 9 hours and 4 minutes. Today, standing at the threshold of yet another year in our lives the day has already gained four minutes; and waking today at 7:28, it struck me odd that it was as light as it was. Was that perception genuine? Do four minutes make that much of a difference? Well, perhaps, some years they do. 2015 was not a bad here for us here, locally, but somehow it seems a good thing that we’re just about to wave the year good-bye…

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

St. Entrepreneur

Back in my childhood a boy, asked what he wanted to become when he grew up, would, as likely as not, say: “A locomotive driver.” The railway, alas, was still quite close to being the dominant, if fading, technology of the mid-1930s. The modern answer (according to this article) is strongly related to the overbearing presence of television: a large number of boys will answer “A football player” or choose some sports-related occupation; most girls will say “An actress” or “A singer” or select some activity in the field of entertainment.

I haven’t found the word “Entrepreneur” on any of these lists—and that because such an activity, when you look at it closely, has to be classified as a second, third, or forth tier layer beneath something else that has more meaning. One needs to have an idea of some kind—for a thing to make or a service to deliver—and in either case, that thing or service has to have a meaning for the person: baking fancy things, say, or caring for troubled people. The next layer is learning to do that thing, whatever it is. How to make money from it comes quite late in the development of what it is—and becoming an entrepreneur is just one of multiple choices in realizing the original idea.

Therefore it amused us much to learn yesterday that Rice University in Texas is gearing up to offer a major program in Entrepreneurship aimed at its enrollees—or to attract such (New York Times, 12/29/15). Now what part of entrepreneurship is teachable? Fundraising would seem to be one of those things—but what if the quite magical powers, such as Steve Jobs possessed, say, are not present? Is fundraising merely a learnable technique? Furthermore, as for technique, fundraising appears to be just one form of persuasion among others, and no doubt Rice already offers degrees in Marketing as part of its business curriculum….

To make this initiative sharply visible for what it is—chasing the latest fad—one can imagine the Vatican setting up a special University of Sainthood, implying that graduates will be almost certain to be canonized—as Rice’s program implies the high likelihood of becoming a billionaire at 21 upon graduation. Sainthood can be taught? To be sure. Let’s start with mortification. Hairshirt 101.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Curious Ramadi Victory

The population of Ramadi in Iraq was around 456,000 in 2004; it housed an estimated 1,000 distinct clans, each with its chief.

What that population is today no one seems to know—and for a good reason. According to Iraqi News (link) 80 percent of the city had been destroyed even before the new allied bombings began; if anybody still lives there, the city is, ah, far from working. But back to numbers. The German Frankfurter Zeitung puts today’s population at 300,000—and one assumes that FZ expended no thought on that number; others, probably still highly dubiously, go back to a 1987 number: 192,000.  If we accept the last number (not that I do), Ramadi is about the size of Grand Rapids, MI. The few pictures we are shown (over and over and over again) only show half a dozen Iraqi army soldiers celebrating amidst dreary, empty ruins; a 2008 picture—from a time when two pairs of American boots are also shown—features four Ramadi citizens going about their business. Still using Iraqi News accounts, the government dropped leaflets over the city around December 26 urging the public to clear the city; but since then we’ve not been shown masses (192,000 is a mass) flooding into the desert trying to escape allied bombardment. And if they fled, where would they have gone? East of them is Fallujah (said to have been 326,000 people in 2010); Fallujah is still in ISIS hands. West, south, and north of them is desert. So what is really left of the governing city of Anwar province—beyond rubble?

A curious victory indeed. Ramadi is 79 miles west of Baghdad. Now its rubble has been liberated. Much closer to Baghdad is Fallujah, still under  ISIS control. Why did the Iraqi government target Ramadi first? Was it because it wasn’t either populated or functional? And how did they get there? Bypassing Fallujah which, like Ramadi, is on Highway 1 and on the Euphrates river. It makes one wonder what is really going on.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Untidy Apocalypse

End-of-year times always have at least a whiff of the apocalyptic about them—and no wonder. The Media feel obliged to compress the year just past into “reviews” and “highlights.” And the impact of these condensed disasters tend to reinforce the feeling that the center doesn’t hold—and never mind that Falcon 9 space rocket that actually returned to land standing up again—or is that a secular symbol of another kind of Return?

To change the image radically (but not really), we’ve observed, after out move to this lovely new house in Wolverine Lake, that this house has a hidden (occult is another descriptor) quality. We loose things and then, often for weeks, can’t find them again. One of those items was a favorite book entitled The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garret, subtitled “Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of balance” (1994). It has happened before; it happened again. I gave up searching and bought another copy. Now we have two, one present and new, another still occulted. Which brings us back to the theme—because, talking about that book again, we were again reminded of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and I had to look up (again!) what those horsemen represent (Revelation 6:1-8).

They represent Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. And again I said to myself: Clean categorization is not one of the virtues St. John the Divine. Conquest typically strongly implies War—unless it was, say, Reagan’s conquest of Grenada in 1983. Therefore Conquest already implies War, so why waste a horse on it? For emphasis? The third horse, Famine, is symbolized by a rider holding scales, and the Revelation text speaks of measures of grain for a penny. Here the confusion is introduced by the interpreters of the revelation, not by its writer. The Third Horse could equally well symbolize Trade, what with pricing and exchange being its subject or, in modern terms, Capitalism. Finally, the last, pale horse is Death—which is equally already present in Conquest, War, and Famine—if the “famine” reading is taken as correct. Messy, messy, messy.

Now Brigitte and I were both at least intuitively sure that Plague was one of the horsemen—and were, again, disappointed—although some digging disclosed that an English clergyman, Edward Bishop Elliott, in 1844, issued Horae Apocalypticae, a commentary, in which he interprets the fourth horseman as the Black Death. There, finally we have the Plague.

But a cleaner updating of St. John the Divine would either forget the first or second horse and thus produce Three Horsemen: War, Capitalism, and Plague. Or keep all four and rename them Colonialism, Capitalism, War, and Plague. And if plague seems unlikely to the reader, we’d suggest a close study of Laurie Garrett’s book.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Slouching Toward 2016...

The cyber revolution is aggressively changing skill sets all across the age-groups of suffering humanity. Toddlers are already giggling over electronic toys; babies will soon be texting MA-MA before they can utter the sounds.

At the other extreme octogenarians (no doubt) have been known to pass on in dramatic episodes: falling down dead in too-stressful efforts to try to make a smart-phone call a great-grandchild.

Now, in Sweden at any rate, even criminals with traditionally the highest skills—the counterfeiters—must rise to even higher levels of skill. Sweden is trying its best to make all cash transactions, and cash itself, disappear (New York Times, today). The German language—for those lucky to know it—provides an indication of how far counterfeiting has come. Counterfeiters are called Falschmünzler, literally “false coiners”; the word counterfeit by contrast has the obscure root of “imitate maker.” Yes. Once upon a time the counterfeiter had to know fancy metallurgy to make coins that passed for the real thing. With the coming of paper money—which is, after all, a mere token of confidence—counterfeiters became experts in paper-making and printing. But now, at least in Sweden, the counterfeiter must become a master of the app, the device, and even of the bit and byte. Wow! Progress is infinite.

The Times tells us that Swedish banks no longer issue cash. If you want to draw money from the bank, better have a little handheld what’s-it ready… Or should we actually believe that? Is this, instead, a counterfeit story, one of the early products of an electronic keyboard programmed to write articles without human intervention?

The next revolution here might be to hold on to cash—and coins too, my little ones. I’m not forgetting you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Rocket's Red Flare

Echoing faintly Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” (“the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”), Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX) managed something genuinely new yesterday. It sent a Falcon 9 rocket out into space carrying 11 satellites. After launching them up there, it fell back to Earth, in an orderly manner, righted itself in a neat vertical position, and slowed by its own flare landed standing up at Cape Canaveral, whence it had taken off.

A splendid time-exposure of the rocket’s landing is shown on today’s WSJ front page. It looks like a flame-sword from Star Wars. Right on time, you might say.

Bomb’s bursting in air is old stuff, going by the poem’s publication date, 1814. But a rocket returning for an upright landing, now that’s worth noting as an historic step in this galaxy, near at hand…

Sunday, December 20, 2015

‘Tis the Season - of Clutter

“When stores are streamlined and aisles cleared, sales drop.” That quote comes from a New York Times Article today titled “Walmart Can’t Escape Clutter. Can You?” The premise is that aisles blocked by “specials” induce people to purchase more than they intend—and that when stores clean up their act, sales drop. Add masses of people (and they’ll be there on a Saturday morning, yesterday, when I went in search of three specific items); a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, my first choice yesterday, was so full that I had a quite distinct feeling of claustrophobia—strong enough to drive me out of the place. Next door here, at the Novi mall, stands a Jo-Ann Fabrics. I went there next. What a great relief. The aisles were wide, no “treasures” blocked my path. I wandered freely as if in a well-tended German forest. I found one of the items on my list. And on leaving, only six people stood in line ahead of me—waiting for one of six check-out counters to free up.

My next and last place was Sears. Out of season it is about as full as an out-of-the-way Tibetan cemetery, but this time it almost matched Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Taking a deep breath I entered the aisle I needed—and fitted in, walking sideways. But the product I sought wasn’t in stock. “Try our web page,” I was told.

So I went home after a single purchase accomplished at a store that, supposedly, was violating all the rules of modern shopping: you must have clutter-filled and crowded aisles. And got curious this morning. Well Jo-Ann Fabrics had sales of $2.1 billion in its last fiscal year publicly reported (ending January 2011). After that it went private—and had estimated sales of $2.4 billion in 2015. Mind you, it was growing just fine in previous years too. The store, by the way, is one of our all time favorites—and the nearest to us here is bigger. I suppose they needed more aisle space!

The Times article, written by an expert adviser to retailers, unwraps the mystery. Clutter and crowding induce people to forget why they are shopping and what they’re supposed to buy. In studies of customers the author shows that people interviewed after shopping don’t even remember half the items they actually bought. In-depth studies—of the sort of depth I only achieve in studying metaphysics—are not exactly necessary. One just looks at the faces of shoppers: they’re all in a narcosis. The author ends his article with this advice to shoppers: “Never shop tired, never shop hungry, and keep a list of shopping objectives.” Amazing advice. The author is evidently trying to destroy his own customers for studies, the retailers. To them he must be saying: “Clutter or die.”

Friday, December 11, 2015

For Octogenarians and Thereabouts

When I reached fifty, then sixty, and even later seventy, I could not even come close to imagining that the decades beyond those years could possibly present radically new experiences. Why just within the last month or so, I muttered to myself while raking or something similar: “I’ve never ever read any honest description, by someone of my age or thereabouts, of what it’s like in this strange territory near the borderzone. Why?” The answer was obvious, of course. What happens in that peculiar temporal territory is not the sort of thing you run home and tell everyone about.

Then this morning Brigitte, the ultimate Finder of Treasures, handed me a paper by Anthony Daniels, better known by his pen name, Theodore Dalrymple. It’s titled “And Death Shall Have Its Dominion” and appears in New English Review dated December 2015. Dalrymple turned 66 in October of this year; thus he is quite young to have this experience of age already. But that he knows the trials and tribulations of advanced age—of that there is no doubt! None whatsoever. Lest there are others like me out there who’ve also wondered why such experiences are conspicuous by absence in the literary media, I hasten at once to give those interested a link to that article here.

I think that the article covers the whole territory in exquisite detail. Those interested will know what I mean. As for others, it might be well, perhaps, just to let it happen when, eventually for many, it will appear of its own accord.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Mass Shootings Chart

The first time on January 9, 2011, next on December 15, 2012, I posted a chart of mass shootings on LaMarotte by decades beginning in the 1910s—thus a century of shootings in the United States. The first time I had to expend a lot of effort to build the series from multiple news sources—trying always to including only those that more than one source had actually mentioned. I labeled it a “rough count” for a reason. I’ve only included counts of shootings that involve more than four dead (except as explained below). Many recent lists include smaller numbers and therefore blur the line between “modern style” mass shootings and family killings (where, for instance, three people related people are murdered).

Herewith I show a version of that chart updated to include the San Bernardino shootings of this month. My source for the update is here. Today, halfway through the 2010s decade, we are showing 27 such shootings (versus 15 in the whole 2000s decade).  Since last publishing this chart, when the 2010s total stood at 16 events, 13 more mass shootings have been added.

A note concerning the chart. In preparing it, I had found virtually no press accounts for the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s but discovered the work of the Minnesota criminologist Grant Duwe and a chart, produced by Duwe, from which I took data for those “empty” decades; those decades are shaded in a different color. Duwe’s numbers show a higher incidence of mass killings than the press accounts, no doubt because Duwe counted all killings of more than four people, whatever the context, whereas the news accounts concentrate on public events that go beyond family (or crime-family) killings.

Ours are interesting times. During a visit to a near-by Meijers Grocery store—a big chain around here—I saw a sheriff’s sedan parked by one of the entrances and wondered if a) it was the first arrival at a first-ever grocery-chain shooting; b) it had been dispatched to guard the place; or c) it was just a sheriff’s deputy picking up a half-gallon of milk on his way home. Later, having picked up my Evening Primrose Oil, I saw the deputy at one end of the store assuring a woman. She seemed in some state of agitation. Was I just imagining her inner condition? Or had she seen something suspicious….

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Global Challenge, Local Response

The biggest challenge of global warming is, indeed, that it is global. Its effects are quite easy to document these days with photographs—but locally, in most places in the United States, you can’t see sea level rising. What you can see, and quite easily, is the price of gasoline and changes in the cost of electricity on your monthly Detroit Edison (or equivalent’s) bill. The New York Times this morning speaks of “A Nation slip[ing] into the Relentless Rising Sea.” I wondered: What nation might that be? I learned that it is the Marshall Islands. I didn’t know that the Marshall Islands are a nation; I also only had a very vague feeling that these islands might be in the Pacific somewhere. The nation (Republic of the Marshall Islands) had an estimated population of 71,191 in 2009. You might call that the local population of a scatter of some 1,156 islands and islets—but, to be sure, the Marshall Islands are definitely part a globe with a total population of 7.3 billion. That huge population, to be sure, is made up of more than 100,000 such local clusters as the Marshall Islands. And in most of those local clusters, global warming is not viscerally, actually, obviously challenging.

The weather may be warmer, summers more hot, winters milder—on some small percentage of total days. There may be more flooding, more fires in seasons; more tornadoes and tsunamis. But these are familiar from way, way back and don’t come with such labels attached as: “Brought to you by Global Warming.” My point is that the hard link between the challenge and the local impact is not such as to energize all but those few clusters of humanity that are actually touched by a real impact—causing them to have to raise seawalls by hand.

At the same time, any effective response to Global Warming must begin at the local level—where mostly the challenge isn’t actually felt. And it must be paid for by the local citizenry resulting in such things as rising electric bills or taxes.

Not surprisingly Congress yesterday passed bills undermining the Administration’s attempts to control power plant carbon emissions just as President Obama is overseas at a Global Warming conference. And Jeb Bush, one of many aiming to replace him, opines that he would have avoided going to Paris because any deal struck there might impose costs on the American public. Thus we need only to read a national paper to know the local response to the global challenge. What this shows me is that there is a genuine limit to human abilities to control global change—whether human-caused on not. To some challenges—especially those with serious local impacts projected to 2050 or beyond—there will never be a local response except those what will be too little too late. Sometimes even modern man must experience what used to be called Fate with the sober realization that que sera, sera.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Dalai Lama and the Brain Scientists

An interesting book: Consciousness at the Crossroads, edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston, and B. Allan Wallace. We got it because Brigitte chanced across an essay by Zara Houshmand a while back which very much impressed us. The book contains the discussion of a conference between the Dalai Lama and leading brain scientists. The interesting aspects of the book is the Dalai Lama’s own presentation of various differing Buddhist cosmologies—and the quite evident tension between the physicalist monism of the scientists and the subtle but very real dualism of Buddhism, never mind which branch is involved. Were it not for the Dalai Lama's own unquestioned world fame, even this attempt to “find commonalities” between the so-called Western and the Asian systems of belief would never have taken place. What we have here is a polite exchange. The radical split between these two views, however, is what makes reading the presentations fascinating.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Knick in the Bokkers

We’ve been watching The Knick on disks, a series that features what had once been the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City. This is an HBO production. What it is, above all, is an illustration of how the past is distorted by modern entertainment media. True: the main character of the piece, John Thackery, played by Clive Owen, is modeled on a actual pioneering surgeon, William Steward Halstead. Halstead was also, like Thackery, a cocaine and morphium addict—but his chief activity was at the Johns Hopkins in Maryland, not the Knickerbocker, located in Harlem, NY. The Knick features—alongside some bloody operations—a cigarette-smoking nun who doubles as an abortionist, a black surgeon to whom one of Halstead's innovations is ascribed, opium dens and naked Asian females on whom, incidentally almost (and at an hourly compensation) Thackery tries out some of his inventions. There is ample violence, graft, and slews of Irishmen presented, almost exclusively, as grafters and members of mobs. As one review had it—something for everyone. The amusing theological content (something for everyone, remember) suggests that the abortion-performing nun will get to heaven for at least some of her abortions—those where the women were pregnant on account of rape by the boss in a factory…. All this had me contrasting fondly remembered historical dramas by Granada Television. HBO, alas, is all Now! even in an historical recreation.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Albert the 1st

In a day and age in which science can even transplant a uterus, one can permit oneself to dream! My dream is that our next NASA venture will be to move the Planet Earth just enough closer to the Sun so that a year will be exactly 364 days—to the minute, nay, to the second and the nanosecond. With that we shall have made the year to last precisely 52 weeks (rather than a pesky 52.14285714). Leap years will have been abolished. The difficult we should do immediately; the impossible—getting rid of Friday the 13th—will take a little longer—unless we hit upon a genuinely creative fix and simply banish Sunday ever falling on the first of any month! No Sunday the 1st—no Friday the 13th. Logical, isn’t it. When Sunday would, under the old dispensation, falls on the 1st of the month, we would substitute Albert for it and simply shove Sunday to the 2nd of the month. Albert is for you-know-who.

The neat solution above has a little problem. It comes from the fact that when a common year (one with 365 days in our benighted times) begins on a Sunday, it also ends on a Sunday. And, surprising people like me, whom calendars generally baffle, a year beginning on Monday also ends on a Monday, and so on for all the days of the week. But if January 1 falls on Albert, what do we do with the last day of the year? Problems. Problems.

In the case of leap years, of course, a January 1st falling on Sunday, the year ends on a Monday what with that pesky February 29th pushing everything out by one. Similarly with all the other possible leap year starting days. 2015 started on a Thursday. Therefore 2016, which also happens to be is a leap year, will start on Friday.

Every common year starting on Thursday has three Fridays the 13th—in February, March, and November. Because, of course, those months start on Sunday. They ought to start on Albert. To help others carry on the future labors of getting rid of Friday the 13th, I herewith present a table for starters. We’ve got to get this whole business simplified. I think you’ll all agree.

Note please that in common years no Friday the 13th falls into July. The Leap year is also finicky: it features no Fridays the 13th in August. And also note, lest my entry title be forgotten, that in all the months shown for Friday the 13th, the first day of the month would be an Albert in my new calendar.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The New Energy

Seemingly intensifying troubles all over the globe—and just yesterday at the University of Missouri—produced the almost random thought this morning: global energy is rising—and it’s been going on for a while.

Behind that thought was the commonplace observation that uncontrolled, un-channeled energy almost always causes huge amounts of damage—as we know from tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like. Therefore what I’m observing across the world—be it in the middle-east, in Africa, and the Americas, not least a drum-beat of shootings, killings, and upheavals here—must be the consequence of extra energy.

But when I look at that, I noted that we’re in the gradual process of consuming what little is left  now of global hydrocarbon energy. By all accounts we should see the Age of Oil end by the end of this century. So where does this new energy come from?

Next it occurred to me that this New Energy is not of the fossil kind—or the candidates to replace it. Rather that it is new human energy chaotically “doing work,” and mostly destructive work, outside the old-fashioned institutional systems of family, markets, education, and government. Can we actually see it? Yes. We see its tooling almost everywhere except in the pools of swimming pools. That tooling is the cell phone. People use it taking the dog for a walk, driving, waiting for the doctor, while shopping, just before falling asleep and first thing after waking and on the toilet.

The cell phone, to be sure, is but the most visible icon of very rapid communication between individuals; it rests on digital technology and systems developed for its exploitation, most centrally the many different kinds of social media enabling people to form ad-hoc group that, when moved by some strong emotion of idea, take on the character of an institution of the old-fashioned, regular kind like a government or an army.

The difference between what I’ve been calling “old-fashioned” institutions and these new ad-hoc groups is that institutions require major investment, employees, work space, routine missions, and central administration. The ad-hoc groups have no office buildings, payrolls, or, often, recognizable leaders; but, often, they can actually function almost without titular leadership altogether. Rapid communication can gel into consensus; action then follows quite spontaneously.

The various emotions or ideas that move these groups may be quite innocent—like entertainment; but when the emotions are rebellion or opposition, they can and do become quite effectively aggressive and take over (often violently, as is the case with ISIS) all traditional institutions and come to dominate entire regions. The earliest of these groups were called flash mobs and date to the early 2000s.

The energy comes from the concerting of individual actions—individuals whom, before the cyber revolution, it would have taken monumental efforts to recruit to coordinate if they were physically close. Such efforts once took significant time to accomplish and could be relatively easily disrupted. The cyber revolution annihilates both space and time—space by being able to coordinate people at great distances and time by doing it in hours or days rather than months or years.  Open communications—on an unimaginable scale—make it almost impossible even to detect the formation and intensification of these groups until they have begun to act. There is also that first amendment guarantee of free speech and assembly to make action countering their destructive efforts difficult. At present this new energy looks like a permanent feature of modern life putting all sorts of institutions at risk. But stable institutions are necessary for order. It is order that has begun to yield—and will fill our media with chaos until a new order, after all kinds of transformations, once more takes hold.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

War on Drugs Revisited

A story in the New York Times this morning, “White Families Seek a Gentler War on Heroin,” reminded us again of a lot older war, the First Opium War (1839-1842). The background to that war was this: Great Britain was growing opium in Bengal to sell to China—opium being one product for which the Chinese were willing to pay silver; they were, in other economic ways, essentially self-sufficient. The British venture produced an exodus of silver from China and a rise in Chinese opium addicts. The emperor decided to eradicate the traffic—adopting much the same general method we’ve adopted in conducting our own war on drugs. Britain resisted this imperial strategy. Hence by military power, Hong Kong became British and Great Britain also extorted rights to trade freely at five other ports, among them Shanghai.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime maintains statistics, if somewhat dated, on opium and heroin consumption world-wide. A graphic produced by UNODC, which I found here, is shown below:

If we take data for 2008 on opiate user in the United States, we get an estimate of 1.335 million users in that year or, expressed as a percent of the total U.S. population, 0.44 percent. Compared to that percentage (less than half of 1 percent), the problem appears minute—unless the addict is your child.

Virtually all heroin used ultimately traces back to Afghanistan—the country where 92 percent of all opium poppies were grown in 2008. Afghanistan’s share has dropped since then to around 83-84 percent. Curiously, as the following chart, taken from Wikipedia (link) shows, the only time when poppy production was seriously challenged in the last two decades was in 2001—when the Taliban were briefly in charge…

We’re looking here are the disconcerting effects on the mind of scale—tiny numbers and vast expenditures on wars (of all kinds)—at tiny places that produce global problems, and at the persistence of problems ultimately rooted in vast cultural movements which produce, wealth, crowding, stress…and substances that help some people cope—the wrong way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Great Inca Road

The National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian) has opened an exhibit, The Greak Inka Road: Engineering an Empire; it will be open until June 2018 (per WSJ, 10-20-2015).

My own interest in great highways is linked with my interest in civilizations; civilizations build road networks as a by-product of administering large areas; and these highways are usually the longest-lasting residues of such cultures; all of us Europeans have trod or driven on what once were Roman roads. A post of mine on South American empires is here. The Incas originated as a culture around 900 A.D. Their empire extended from 1438 to 1533—and would have lasted a great deal longer had it not been for those conquistadors. Most of the Great Inca Road was built during the period of the Inca Empire although parts of it predate Inca dominion.

The map I show is from Wikipedia (link). The system, a roughly parallel formation, has a coastal main highway (in brown) and a mountain route (in blue). The light-brown roads connecting these and branching from them were part of the system—with those crossing the mountains the most spectacular. The broken lines are today’s state borders.

Pondering this vast structure—and looking at many great pictures easily accessible by entering “Inca Road System” into Google Images—I wonder what some counterpart of mine, studying civilizations and their roads, will think of the remains of The Great American Road System two thousand years from now. Will he imagine that they were built by slaves? Such is the reflex belief we bring to the subject—although we know that most Roman roads were built by soldiers and, as best as we can determine, Inca road-building itself was based on something akin to military levies. Such levies are well known to us from medieval times—never mind the still vividly remembered draft….

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Odd Dilemma

The definition of dilemma, literally “two propositions,” takes its negative meaning from the fact that both propositions (or situations) must be unfavorable to deserve the name dilemma—yet we must choose one. Fine. But my use of the word is a little different here. Of the two propositions I have in mind, I view the first rather with approval; not the second; yet the second is the cause of the first.

The first is that since the end of the Great Recession (let’s assume that it lasted for two years, all of 2008 and 2009) has had a dreary aftermath that, so far, has lasted nearly six years. By dreary I mean that the economy, while it has grown, has grown from 2010 to 2015 at an annual rate of 1.4 percent whereas it grew from 2002 to 2007 at a rate of 2.9 percent. The measured item here is Gross Domestic Product expressed in constant dollars. The low GDP growth rate since the recession actually pleases me: 1.4 percent is much closer to the population growth rate, which is under 1 percent annually—yet it is higher than the population growth rate; we are growing, a little, but are avoiding what Alan Greenspan once labeled “irrational exuberance.”

The second proposition is that the reason for our supposedly sluggish growth is not only domestic but also international conflict. Conflict has caused the erosion of public confidence and manifests in countless ways—and this despite low gasoline prices and gradually increasing employment—if only in the lower-paid segments of the economy. The adaptive growth pattern is pleasing; its cause, vast demoralization, is not. Therefore the dilemma.

In a way this situation illustrates the nature of real change—which is almost never by design but always by default. Just as drought produces those ugly cracks in dried out ground so social conflict produces adaptive attempts to form new, smaller, and more viable social entities. Unfortunately, to make the smaller, one has to tear the greater apart. Hence we have these nearly annual cliff hangers about public debt and government closings, cracks within and between parties, insane shootings at public events that are beginning to be almost casual—and, to be sure, hesitance by people to spend money on anything but the necessary stuff. Meanwhile, looking beyond our borders, much, much the same everywhere. If this goes on, yet more changes will appear in society. Some of them I will actually appreciate and value (as I do low-growth-GDP), even if their causes are rather sordid.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Red and the Green

The subject today is neither an English-Irish conflict (Iris Murdoch’s novel of the same title) nor yet the clash between carnivorous and vegetarian diets (Le Vert et Le Rouge, a novel by Armand Chauvel). Rather it is about an annual event in this household, analogous to the autumnal equinox but always coming later—namely the day when The Plants Come In. This event is caused by early frosts; we’ve got good documentation of when that has happened since 2011. In that year the plants came in on November 11—the latest date in the entire series. Thus 2012: October 28; 2013: November 7; 2014: October 18; and now, 2015: October 16.

These dates always mark the first day of the move—and the effort usually takes several days to accomplish. Some plants are easily grouped together. We cover them with sheets held in place with clothes pins; they can easily survive a few hours of frost and then stay outside for several days yet until the cold sets in seriously or we grow tired of draping them each evening.

Above a couple of photos of the Red and the Green which, this year, got left out to fend for themselves: carnations and all but one, the biggest, of our jade plants. They’re enjoying the quite real warmth of the sun this morning.

The autumnal event, of course, is matched by a vernal counterpart—which also comes later, indeed usually two months, and counting, later: the day when The Plants Go Out. That day has been pretty much centered around May 5. That process also takes two days—because we’ve got a lot of plants to move. The heaviest go out first. We know: you get the hardest job done before you tidy things up with the little stuff…

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Waiting for Coffee on Mars

Now we know that briny brooks flow down the mountain-sides on Mars. The news came yesterday in a paper in Nature Geoscience (link). The immediate speculation turned to the possible presence of Life on the red planet—not presently, presumably, because the water is way to salty to allow that—but a ways back in time. Good stuff for the science fiction writer, myself one such, only we’ve already been there. We’ve done it by imagination—and quite old knowledge that Mars has water; the planet has an ice cap on its northern pole. The NASA team used satellite-based instruments to discover the flowing brine. What strikes me as interesting, here, is our strong faith in our own theories of how life begins and then develops. All one needs is water, some heat, minerals, and lots and lots of time. Given these minima, Life’s sure to begin. Now as for intelligence, that’s a little bit more difficult. But I am sure that science, in its dogged determination, will one of these days discover the presence of coffee on Mars. That’s when I’ll get excited—knowing, as I do, that without coffee in the morning, my own intelligence is almost non-existent.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Shadow Moon

The earth would throw its reddish shade
Over that Mayan heroine
“Blood Maid”—whom we call “Supermoon”
These days (a new term for Luna
At her perigees)—when streaky
Clouds began to spread dense veils leaving
Unwelcome snaky dark-grey trails.

Then came a call from Pat next door
To say that clouds had now at last
Begun to fray. The Supermoon
Was in the sky again. Its diamond
Shine had now begun to wane as
Pac Man Earth’s dark shadow took the
First bite it would now swallow.

We sat in a deep pool of black
Between the house, garage, and the
Dark green of grass, the gazebo’s
Shapely silhouette—marked by faint
Solar beads of lights—ahead and
On high a mirage—a gaining
Moon its dark parts faint maroon.

It took a while until real light
Had fled leaving behind a shade
Of glowing red. Here was “Blood Moon”
Named so, they say, by our prophets
Predicting the Last Days. We read
The message, agreeing with the
Sky, and hoped that Light would yet
Return, if only by-and-bye.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Minding the Nones of July

We’re frequently reminded that an exercised mind retards the onset of senility. Minds aged eighty or thereabouts and higher tend to notice stories like that; the ballpoint marks the article for closer reading. Keeping the mind sharp is our excuse, hereabouts, for working crossword puzzles, as in “you learn something new every day,” e.g. that OREO is an almost indispensably useful word in crossword puzzles. Well, the other day, we had the following clue: July 7, e.g. Brigitte and I always do puzzles together; and what with our respective backgrounds, we fill in our respective gaps of knowledge and never fail to solve a puzzle. This time, again, we found the answer to that clue—but only by finding the other words that intersected with it. The answer was NONES. But what does that mean?

Nones, of course, vaguely hinted at the ninth canonical hour, but the clue was July 7. So how do we get from 9 to 7. To get an answer to that illustrates what might be called the useful activity of “extended crossword puzzle solving.” One has to research the subject. Well, Brigitte and I are both quite familiar with the Ides of March; assassinations of important people have a way of lingering in racial memory. We also knew that it was the 15th of the month. Oddly enough, as we discovered, counting backward from 15, with 15 being 1, the 9th day turns out to be the 7th. So if you count back from the Ides of July by nine, including that day in your count, the ninth (nonae in Latin) day will be the 7th.  Nones is always the 9th day of the month in the Julian calendar—but it falls on the 7th of the month only in March, May, July, and October—because the Ides falls on the 15th. In all other months, the Ides fall on the 13th and hence Nones is on the 5th of the month!

Having discovered this, we learned that Roman naming of the days was rather awkward. The Romans only had three “named” days, Kalends (the first day of the month), Nones (5th or 7th depending on the month), and Ides (15th or 13th, again depending on the months). All other days were defined with reference to these three. The following table shows the naming conventions, which seem very hard to remember for us, for the month of July:

Kalends (of July)
Day 15 before Kalends
Day 5 before Nones
Day 14 before Kalends
Day 4 before Nones
Day 13 before Kalends
Day 3 before Nones
Day 12 before Kalends
Day 2 before Nones
Day 11 before Kalends
Day before Nones
Day 10 before Kalends
Day 9 before Kalends
Day 7 before Ides
Day 8 before Kalends
Day 6 before Ides
Day 7 before Kalends
Day 5 before Ides
Day 6 before Kalends
Day 4 before Ides
Day 5 before Kalends
Day 3 before Ides
Day 4 before Kalends
Day 2 before Ides
Day 3 before Kalends
Day before Ides
Day 2 before Kalends
Day before Kalends
Day 16 before Kalends
Kalends (of August)

The Romans used a standard annotation to name a day. Lets take the 13th of July here. They would write that as “a.d. II Id. Iul.” Spelled out: “ante diem II, Ides, Iulius.” Ante diem  stands for “day before”; it amuses me, however, that A.D. was used in calendars once—and still is, but with a different meaning. Iulius, is, of course, our July. The phrasing on the day immediately before the named days (e.g. July 14) was “prid. Id. Iul.”; the prid. is pridie and means “the day before.”

Keeping track of the days, particularly in the second half of each month, was rather a chore, it seems, best left to scribes who had desks with appropriate writing instruments on which to record time's passage.

Now, knowing that it takes such exercises to ward off the onrush of senility makes you kind of wonder just how bad senility really might be…

Thursday, July 9, 2015

It's a Gamble

What with Donald Trump suddenly so very visible in the Media, Brigitte got to wondering just where gambling is classified in the U.S. economy and, furthermore, just how big it actually is. An earlier post here, measuring the advertising industry as percentage of Gross Domestic Product was in the background of this question. How does the gaming “industry” compare to advertising? No doubt, to be sure, matters of chance were on her mind too—in view of the rather awkward fact that she managed to break an arm when, accidentally, slipping as she got out of the shower…

Well, gambling is part of Amusement, Gambling, and Recreation Industries (NAICS 713), specifically NAICS 7132, Gambling Industries. As best as I can determine, the industry’s revenues in 2013 were a shade over $33 billion, amounting to 0.2 percent of GDP in that year. Advertising, by contrast, was around 1.03 percent. Advertising is barely visible—and gambling is too small to see.

But if you go to Atlantic City and stand before the Trump Taj Mahal, especially when it’s lit up for the night, you get an altogether wrong impression of gambling’s importance—or Donald Trump’s as a presidential candidate. To be sure, if Trump triumphs, in both of his ventures—to get nominated or to rescue the Taj Mahal from bankruptcy— it will at least prove that our times are reaching the highest improbabilities even for a truly crazy state of the world. As for Brigitte, she’s got a few more  days before the present (sea-foam-green?) cast gives way to the (oyster-beige?) last one and the process of relearning to write with her right hand can be taken up in earnest…

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Neglected Typographical Symbol

In my handwritten diary the other day, I wanted to refer to a section of a book using the Section symbol. The attempt turned out to be something of a mess. I was doing it from memory, and my memory produced an image as of a 8 but with a little head on top. The symbol I was trying for in shown on the left, indicating that my memory was on the right track but now quite there. It is known as a double-S; indeed one person, known as Quora User, suggests that in handwriting one should try first writing an S and then another overlaying the first starting at about the mid-point of the one already written..

The double-S designation is also supported by its Latin designation, signmum sectiones—which, happily, provides the right sound as well. The mark is quite heavily used in legal documents but is otherwise essentially notable by absence in all other kinds of writings—unless one’s reading a nineteenth century work.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Very Fine Distinction

Word-lovers will, I think, appreciate what I stumbled across last night. I was reading Volume II of Phantasms of the Living, a classic in parapsychology by Edward Gurney et al, the real focus of which, broadly speaking, is telepathy; in detail it is filled with reports of people seeing apparitions, usually associated with the death of the person seen. Phantasms was the result of the first effort to conduct research by the Society for Psychical Research after its founding in 1882. In every meaningful regard, it is a classic and laid the groundwork for all future research in paranormal studies, not least its very rigorous reliance on statistical analysis of findings.

The story of the book itself, in a modern context, is amusing in its own way. I’m reading Volume II in the original, you might say: print-outs from a gigantic PDF produced by direct photocopying of the original. That task was then followed by digitization of the image, both tasks performed by Google. The actual reprint of the book, made from the digitization, turns out to be essentially unreadable.  The text has been reprinted—but without any attention paid to layout. Footnotes are reproduced as paragraphs wherever they fall—not at the bottom of pages—and without change in typography. New Chapters begin simply as new paragraphs in  the middle of pages. And so on. The photo images I’m reading, however, are clear, sharp, and laid out with the meticulous care applied in 1886.

Now to my little discovery. It comes from Chapter XIV, p. 58 of Volume II. It is yet another case (Number 239) of an apparition, written by one J. Merrill. In the commentary on the vision, Mr. Merrill says:

Moreover, I used the Scotch word ‘wraith’ instead of ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit,’ as I had an idea that the former word was applied to appearances before death.

The comment is added because the subject revolves around this issue: was the person whose apparition had been seen dead at the time—or still alive? Mr. Merrill thought it was best to assume that the answer was “still alive” hence the use of the word wraith. Well, I didn’t know that there was such a distinction expressible by choice of word.

Indeed, it turns out, there is. My 1961 unabridged Webster’s International provides the following as its first definition: “1a an apparition of a living person in his exact likeness seen usu. just before his death.” The word is further defined as a “ghost” in 1b—but the first definition agrees with Mr. Merrill’s sense expressed in 1885.

Webster’s does not indicate a Scottish origin, but Online Etymology Dictionary does; that source, however, says nothing of the fine distinction in J. Merrill’s mind.

Now for those who have little interest in obscure words, never mind phantasms and such, this post is presented, also, as perhaps of some future value. Ever wonder how people in their very late 70s and 80s spend the ample time and leisure they have from housekeeping, gardening, and shopping? Here you have an example. Words, particularly for those who’re almost-wraiths (there ought to be a word for that too) are a great source of amusement, indeed of merriment. Merriment, incidentally, finds its rooting in mirth.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Butterflies and the Bush-on-a-Tree

Sunday last we saw our favorite butterfly for the first time, the Black Swallowtail, feeding in all leisure off the blooms of a rather curious tree of ours. It is a Dwarf Lilac known to the botanists as Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’. I call it a curious tree because it is actually a combined form of a tree below and a bush above accomplished by grafting. The Korean Dwarf Lilac ordinarily has a very short stem of no more than 5 inches, so that the lilac hugs the ground. But look at these pictures:

The trunk of this “tree” measures 3.5 feet from the ground to the point where the branches articulate—thus way taller than the Korean Dwarf Lilac’s natural height. Our tree, therefore, is what they call a topgraft. The top part is a Dwarf Lilac and is called the scion; the trunk must be from a genetically related plant that grows quite high; it is called the interstem. With dwarf lilacs the two interstems normally used are Syringa villosa or the Japanese Lilac (Syringa reticulata). Our interstem is definitely a Villosa, commonly known as Lilac, Late; note, on the picture above, the green branches growing at the stem’s bottom; those leaves are the original leaves of the stem and helped me identify it. The Dwarf Lilac’s leaves are much smaller, darker in color, and of a different shape. But let me emphasize, again, that both the trunk and the top belong to the same genus; genetic similarity is a must for successful topgrafting.

The bloom of our little lily is shown on the left. It has a very faint odor now, but that odor will grow more and more pronounced as we enter the month of June.

Our Black Swallowtails arrived in pairs, one significantly larger than the other. They are very dark butterflies with a distinct yellow marking on the wings. They stood out splendidly against the lilac blossoms so that we could clearly make them out even from a distance; they were our own. Among other butterflies we’ve seen thus far are a Monarch (still alive, looks like), a Yellow Tiger Swallowtail, and a handful of Cabbage Whites. We feel quite comfortable with the butterflies. As for the Syringa meyeri, it will take some time before we get used to its curious duality.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Hidden Logic of Health Care

At my birth in 1936 in Hungary the country already had 30 years of experience with a nationalized health care system, founded in 1907. That program was called “National Workers' Sick-Benefit and Accident Fund”; it was replaced, in 1928, with the “National Social Insurance Institution.”  The country has had such a system ever since, more and more inclusive and entirely state run and funded.  By the way, the first insurance program that only covered part of the population, miners, went back all the way to 1496.

With this in my background, is it any wonder that I have a rather negative view of the health care debates in the United States. Every member of my own family had directly experienced the benefits of so-called “socialized” medicine from birth on forward. In addition, my Grandfather was a doctor; and his grandfather had been a very prominent doctor as well, responsible for all mental diseases in Hungary. Therefore we all had close contact and knowledge of the profession that delivered the services—always being paid civil services wages.

These memories arose today because Brigitte came across a brief book review, H. Gilbert Welch’s Less Medicine, More Health (Beacon Press, 2015). Welch argues that we have too much health care with many decidedly negative concomitants—and that it costs way too much. The brief article also suggested to me that we tend to overlook the fundamental logic of health care—and how that logic is violated when we let the Hidden Hand decide how medicine should be practices.

Another memory arose as well. Once long ago in Kansas City I gave a talk to a group of medical students. I’ve completely forgotten my subject, but afterwards I had a chance to socialize with a small group of students. I made an attempt to discover what had motivated these men (all men then) to follow their chosen profession. An amazing six of the seven people I talked with all pointed to the potentially high income medicine promised them. One man only half shamefacedly confessed that service to humanity had drawn him into doctoring. And yet another: While living in Minnesota, we got to know a skin doctor who’d moved to the United States from Canada and, well-established there, actively boasted that he’d crossed the border because the Canadian system had failed to give him the opportunity to turn his arduous learning into wealth. I’m actually understating what all he said…

The logic of health care therefore runs something like this. Medicine might attract too many people to practice it for the wrong reasons. For them a Free Market medicine provides all sorts of wrong incentives—to treat more, and more intensively—because every transaction increases income. In a socialized framework they can never get rich; therefore those drawn to medicine will be drawn by its inherent character, the opportunity to help people. Much as in Minnesota we changed skin doctors, so throughout our life here we’ve sought out doctors who have the genuine motivation and avoided the others.

With nationally controlled income for doctors, many of the problems cited by Dr. Welch would disappear on their own accord. We’d have much less unnecessary testing, fewer visits, lower administrating staffing, and much more affordable and probably more effective health care. We’ve seen it practiced like that in Hungary, Poland, Germany, and France. When you work as a provider of care in countries like that, you won’t need anyone to manage your wealth. You won’t have any. But you’ll live in comfort. And I’d like to tell all this to the Hidden Hand—if only I could see it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Our Close Maple Neighbors

It is that time of year again—when Maples rain their seeds (link). At our new house we have two maples in quite close proximity, growing on the edges of our neighbor’s lawn. One is a rather stately Silver Maple; its branches shadow parts of our roof from on high, and I mean very high. In the image I show, the maple seeds covering our roof are from this oldster. Next to it, separated by a rather rich spread of lilac bushes, is a Red Maple shading our garage. It is small, with smooth bark (indicating youth) and, at this season, very green leaves. If you are persnickety about concrete, and want it pristine, do not associate with maple trees that shade it. All year long they continuously rain down something: not only seed but of leaves, twigs, and branches too. But sweeping them up at right regular intervals provides a benefit: a feeling of accomplishment on the cheap. It all looks so neat—and tomorrow it’ll need the broom again…

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Self-Evolving Technology

The Self-Driving Car (SDC) shows an interesting aspect of Technology—namely that it seems to have a mind of its own and operates in a Self-Evolving way. If I were still writing science fiction, I’d write a novella with that theme. Not that it would be very original. SF is full of tales in which Technology, usually in the form of robots, evolves to such heights that it dreams of taking over everything.  But why am I picking on the SDC? Because it is one of the cleanest examples of a technology we do not need. So long as some people will be driving cars, the SDC will represent a danger to people, whether in those cars or not. And if people no longer use cars, what use would SDC be? Or is this technology ultimately aimed at eliminating flesh-and-blood drivers in trucking?

Two phenomena seem to be behind the self-evolving character of technology. One is illustrated by that old answer given by the mountain climber. Asked why he wants to risk his life and limb to conquer Mount Whatever, he answer by saying, “Because it’s there.” The other is that at least in its early stages, technology has generally proved beneficial to humanity; its negative aspects have tended to be half-obscured and slow in manifesting; therefore the public, presented with a new device—like the SDC—not only imagines that it will be a blessing but is also inclined to believe that the device will carve a place for itself whether we like it or not. Submission, therefore, is the natural way, no matter what the new technology might be.

Very slowly the world is transformed; but whether in the direction of the better is dubious—and dubious in part because other paths have never been walked. Around here another technological nexus is often much examined: the medical. It has grown in Brigitte’s and my lifetime from a doctor with a black bag making house calls into a veritable Himalaya of large machines on high and a vast jungle of small machines below —thus MRIs, CATs and so on top to small hand-held ultrasound pods on the ground that, pressed against the body, show its innards on a screen darkly. Now Artificial Intelligence is trending toward diagnostics by keyboard and screen. And as the car’s driver is being slowly marginalized, the doctor is gradually becoming a technician. A rather paradoxical outcome of medical technology’s ever growing perfections and spread—the reader should see the medications I’m forced to take and watch me labor dispensing them daily from a forest of containers—is that people live longer and longer, but the joy of that living is less and less and, at shorter and shorter intervals, requires for its maintenance entry into a bizarre machine—which itself holds other smaller weird machines—until, at last one enters the tunnel a final time and passes on with masses of tubes coming out of one’s nose and mouth and creatures holding thunder-dispensers in each hand approaching the chest to start that poor heart again until it cannot any more.

Seriously. The old ways are still with us over very large stretches of the globe’s geography. But another technology, the Media, make us think that leaving the Paradise of Technology for that primitive world would be dreadful. From a distance, perhaps. From up close, Self-Evolving Technology can be quite hellish too.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tea without Sympathy

Thoughts about the coherence of culture arose yesterday as a subject of our morning conversation. Put another way, is there anything resembling consensus in this country or is it rather that multiple groups, with contradictory views, are competing for followers? It might be argued that “competing groups” are a rule and that a situation we see in 2015 was just as true in 1815 or in 1915. Furthermore one needs to be on guard. Chaotic times produce a kind of pervasive discomfort—and the feeling that today’s situation is both new and in a way permanent. Not so. Ours is not the only time when “the center cannot hold.”

Part of the problem with incoherent times is that such periods are matters of perception or feel. They don’t quite reach down to the ordinary levels of practical daily life. When they do, we’ve entered a Time of Troubles. The feel in the 1960s was one of broad consensus; now the feel is one of sharp polarization. But objective measurement of such a pair of suppositions is difficult. One just knows—but how does one know? Largely from the media.

In 1960, for example, the three television stations, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were not meaningfully different. Today there is Fox in addition, MSNBC attempting to balance Fox, and neither much interested in international matters. For that we have CNN—unless a train derails. In 1960 both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were bland; both have developed clear ideological edges since. In 1960 radical right radio had not yet appeared; Rush Limbaugh was still 30 years away; now it is present. Once Congress regularly passed annual budgets; now it is in perpetual deadlock.

From the media, yes—because, in the neighborhood the rule is still to suppress any kind of controversy by simply not talking about polarizing subjects. Therefore the sound of deep conflicts necessarily comes from the media. Polls taken of public opinion are unreliable because, on hard subjects, people echo the blandest opinions, especially if their own gut feel is unpopular in the media. All disagreements are labeled “phobic” and no one wants to be labeled “phobic.” Reasoned opposition to many movements is not heard in an age of abbreviation and slogans. Thus even what little consensus seems to exist is in actuality questionable. Therefore it’s all just a feeling—but we also live in an age in which feelings rank higher than thought.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Where Search and Social Draw their Funds

The Business Pages these days tend to focus on Mergers & Acquisition, Finance, Mobile Devices, and that sector of Internet business represented by big search engines and the social Media.

It is the last category that interests me. There is a great deal of hoopla about Internet companies, but those that provide a free service all draw their income from the Advertising expenditures by the rest of the economy.

So the question arises, how big is that “funding sector.” Is it as large as the media’s interest in Internet startups and IPOs? The surprising answer is that Total Advertising Expenditure in 2014 was $161 billion; that comes to less than 1 percent (0.92%) of the Total Economy measured by GDP, or $17.4 trillion. My number for Advertising comes from Group M, a global media company. Some put the 2014 number at $180.12 billion (1.03% of GDP). In 2008, advertising was $141.7 billion, 0.99 percent of an economy of $14.3 trillion. The Total Advertising Expenditure category has actually shrunk as a percent of GDP.

A great deal of media hoopla, but in reality a tiny and shrinking slice of the economy.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Bradford Pear

A central feature of our backyard is a Pyrus calleryana, commonly known as a Callery Pear, its most widespread variety being the Bradford Pear: a pear tree, in other words. But what we understand when we hear a word like “pear” is not always what is meant by those INON the true situation (to use a Crosswordese phrase). The pears of the Bradford are tiny and brown; most small leaves would support several of the fruit. They become quite hard with time but are good food for birds.

The tree flowers white in Spring, is green in the summer, dark purplish in fall—with the dark, curled leaves clinging here and there well into winter and persistently littering the ground long after the latest raking. And I assure you that raking our yard is a chore.

The loveliness of the tree in Spring—and its equally colorful Autumnal accent—would make you believe that the Bradford is universally admired. It turns out that it has many detractors. I found our tree’s identity almost immediately because the web has many postings with titles like “A Mixed Blessing in the Landscape” and “I just Hate Bradford Pears.” They die young (20 years); their branches angle too steeply into the vertical (exposing them to storm damage), and they are invasive. So far we’ve not encountered any of the negatives and so, with sunshine for an hour or two still ahead, we’re just enjoying our latest inheritance while ignoring the dire warning of the world at large...