Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Ends

March ends in snow lightly coating
Just the grass where big flakes sag with
Disappointment and half-live blades
Of last year’s growth drink unawarely
Of the moisture the flakes bring.
Flakes die, blades live, unawakely,
Until the sun resplendently
Half wakes them to emerging Spring.

Our Sense of Time

I’m reading again a book which was completed in 1899. At least I presume that was the year because the book, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, was first presented in 1900 as the second Gifford Lecture given at Edinburgh. By 1900, I learned today, the Eiffel Tower in Paris had already been in place for a decade. It was opened to the public on March 31, 1889—and since Google is featuring the tower today, now everybody knows. A hundred and twenty-six years ago! Did William James ever go up to see Paris from that height? My own reaction was a slight startle of surprise. That long ago? Somehow what I was reading—and Varieties is one of several books I’m reading in parallel from that time—does not smoothly integrate with this monument of technological self-assertion. At the same time, reading writings from that period had also struck me with the modernity of the views I was absorbing. All times, ultimately, reflect all aspects of a society, not merely its thought or its technology. And this coincidence in time, for me, is one of the proofs of that.

Just to stay with wondrous constructs, the Chartres Cathedral was completed in 1220. Looking for significant figures in that time, I come up with Hildegard of Bingen (who died while it was being built but 31 years before its completion), Francis of Assisi  (who died six years after the cathedral was done), and Roger Bacon (who was a boy of six the year when Chartres was finished). It all sort of fits, you might say.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Logic of Nuclear Arms

On the eve of a nuclear arms treaty with Iran, the nature of which I cannot guess at, my shopping trip musings turned to the logic of nuclear arms. The general background, I learned later, is that we have nations with nuclear arms, nations without them, and one nation (Israel) which will not say so one way or the other. There is a major treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), 1968, to which most nations are signatories except North Korea; North Korea had once been a signatory but then withdrew. Four nations have never signed NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan. Of those outside the NPT, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have nuclear warms; South Sudan has none; Israel is believed to have them.

Iran is a signatory but believed to be in violation of the NPT.

Now the logic seems to be, here, that some nations are “grandfathered in” and thus no one disputes their ownership. Others fall, through alliances, under the protection of those who do. Iran is something of an exception, being the sole major Sh’ia nation and not a member of a recognized bloc. But it is geographically also close to Israel, a nation with an ambiguous status, but most closely allied with the United States. Therefore Iran is the target of very, very special oversight. But why? Because it threatens Israel? That assumption is at least logical.

Nothing else is in this context. If nuclear arms are so dangerous, why may so many have them. Why is no pressure placed on India to rid itself of such arms? Is that because it is aligned to the West, more or less?

I wonder what would happen if Iran withdrew from the NPT. It would at least make logical sense, in a way, because no one seems intent on attacking India, Pakistan, or even North Korea. So the problem seems to be—Israel. And its ambiguous status. Maybe they are the chosen people. And Truman must have known that when he finally agreed to impose an Israeli state on Palestinian territory—or was Palestine a British Colony then? I better stop before I drown in an overflow of muddy logic.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

10: Subscription v. Outright Purchase?

Are computers and all that surrounds them a proper subject for a blog largely focused on matters of culture? You bet. Even those who still actively purchase books and spend real time with them—and talking about them—have come to rely on such things as Amazon, just the mention of which constellates everything from “connectivity” to “operating systems.”

My old machine, running VISTA, will be updated to Windows 7—although a rather questionable Windows 8 exists and Windows 10 is in the offing. From the folks who made the repairs on mine comes the rumor that in the future Microsoft will require you (after Win-10 replaces Win-7) to pay an annual subscription charge. Things like that alarm me.

Back in the 1980s Brigitte’s Minneapolis Branch of Gale Research, the preeminent publisher of reference works, operated a mid-sized IBM system. It was one system but functionally provided the services of three consoles. The quarterly fee for its operating system back then was the chief expense of running that machine; and with the fee one could easily buy four to five PCs. Not surprisingly, a “migration” to PCs actually took place in that office…

I was peripherally involved in that migration and hence have a painful memory of operating systems that needed right regular and sizeable payments just to boot, you might say.

Well, this article (link) dated January 10, 2015, on PCGamer, assures me that “Windows 10 will not be sold as a subscription,” quoting Microsoft. Very good. Very good. As with all “outright purchase” systems so also with Windows 10, updates and fixes are continuous and free.

All this began, seemingly, because Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer, when first discussing its pricing of Windows 10 in December 2014, had this to say: “We’ve got to monetise it differently. And there are services involved. There are additional opportunities for us to bring additional services to the product and do it in a creative way.”(link). Furthermore, actual pricing of the product was to be made public in Spring/Summer of 2015. So the public is still quite uncertain—except that Windows 10 on new machines and upgrades from Windows 7 and 8 will be free for purchasers of new machines and owners of 7 and 8. So we shall see.

To be sure, a subscription route, if Microsoft actually ever pursues it, will not do much to secure its dominant market share in operating systems. Others will satisfy such people as me who will refuse going that way. Red Hat or somebody. But it is well to keep one’s eyes open. Microsoft already sells the MSDN Operating System under a subscription (link). MSDN, however, is aimed at developers; it gives them access to all Microsoft operating systems to help them test their new products for every Microsoft platform.

Let us by all means stick with “outright ownership” of operating systems. Even then one pays plenty for that ownership. I could provide a long list of operating systems I’ve purchased over the last thirty years, but doing the research for that is a bit tedious…

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mass Killings in 2015

The Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in France begins to appear more and more like a mass killing by a deranged co-pilot. To get some perspective on the sudden deaths of yet another 150 innocents by violent means, I looked for and found Wikipedia’s site titled “Mass Murder in 2015” (link). Some 28 cases are listed there, not including the Germanwings crash. Total deaths reported thus far in 2015 have been 944. The largest number is associated with Boko Haram taking place in Nigeria or in neighboring regions of Niger and Cameroon (370 or 39%); Yemen comes next (180, 19%); and Pakistan is third (104, 11%). If we count the Germanwings case, France would displace Pakistan—or Germany would if we assign the deaths to origin of the perpetrator.

Nine hundred and forty-four—and today 1,094 innocents killed. May they all rest in peace….

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Minor First

My trusted HP desktop is presently on the blink. These episodes loom larger than life despite just being minor malfunctions. Subjectively it feels as if a huge crack has appeared in Reality itself. Our habits are our worst addictions.

Computer Days (in the same context as Doctor Days) are relatively rare, but memories of the last time rush in like a tornado. They cost about the same as Doctor Days as well, but in that category we carry no insurance.

Just how rare are they? Well, until I start keeping a log I’ll never know. The other First today is that this post is being written on my HP laptop. The Internet is unaffected. The last time it went down was February 2, 2013.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Malthus and the One-an-a-Half Earths

Studying Nigeria and, more broadly Africa, these past few days, I was reminded of an organization called Global Footprint Network. I’ve had a post on GFN on LaMarotte a couple of years ago (link), where the concept of calculating the earth’s carrying capacity is outlined. According to GFN we are now consuming resources at a rate which, if measured by the earth’s ability to replace them, would require another half of an earth—which is another way of saying that resources are not being replaced—hence we are approaching some kind of disaster. Those interested might wish to visit the GFN site (link). I turned in this direction because Africa is a rather sizable continent and, today, by no means developed. Hence its full-scale industrialization might well tilt things in the wrong way. I ended that post in 2013 thus:

The Global Footprint Network is, ultimately, looking at population pressure—thus falls under a tradition begun by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834).  At the halfway point in Malthus’ life, circa 1800, world population was around 1 billion. We were then a long, long ways away form an unsustainable population. But we’ve increased population since then more than six times. And at some point somebody will be right. Unsustainability will be reached. Does that mean that humanity will disappear? No. But the return to long-term sustainability will be neither pretty nor due to some clever gifts of technology, no matter how ingenious.

Nigeria’s population growth in 2013, according to the CIA World Factbook, was 2.47 percent per year—with its northern reaches gradually desertifying; that of the United States was 0.77 percent.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Note on Damasak, Nigeria

A sub-theme of my posts on Boko Haram is to show how little we know about places like Nigeria—particularly its fringes where insurrectionary forces reside. Today’s New York Times carries a story reporting that army elements from Chad and Niger captured the town of Damasak from Boko Haram. One sentence immediately raised red flags:
The other unmistakable sign of the Islamist militants’ recent presence is that very few residents remain in a once thriving  town of 200,000.
What? Damasak is located right on the border with Niger (the country). The ordinary Google map does not show it at all. You can search for it by name in Google maps. Doing so identifies its location; using the satellite mode and enlarging the spot maximally shows what might be a small village. Indeed, looking at lists of cities in Nigeria, Damasak does not show up in the list of those 100,000 or greater in population. Hard work using a site called Falling Grain (link) eventually finds it about four different levels from the top. The place has a population of 1,108. That’s quite a distance from 200K. And the satellite image suggests that even that last number is exaggerated.

This is a desert landscape with trees here and there. A cluster of them at the indicated point suggest something like fifty huts. Damasak is 113 miles NNW of Borno State’s capital Maiduguri—where those “200,000” most likely fled—according to the NYT. The map shows both places, the red A indicating the location of Damasak. Caution is clearly indicated when reading modern media about very distant, obscure places.  Back before the Internet came into being, one could not check such things in, say, 15 minutes—15 minutes that our reporter clearly did not have.
Posts in this series:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

From Palm Oil to Crude Oil

In the 1500s the town of Badagry in Nigeria, some 40 miles west of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, became one of earliest slave ports supplying the Americas. In the early years of American Independence an estimated 550,000 slaves travelled from there to the United States, until about the late 1780s (link). Access to the ocean was better to the east, at Lagos. That city became a focal point for two kinds of trade, in slaves and in palm oil. The city grew by leaps and bounds†.

In the map that follows, I show the points of early western contact at Badagry and at Lagos. The inset within that map shows where Lagos is within Nigeria; the second arrow points to the region of today’s chief Nigerian export, crude oil.

Slavery did not arrive in response to the slave trade; it preexisted “export” for a long period, both under pagan and Muslim rule. But European traders arrived with bars of iron, weapons, cotton, textiles, and alcohol. The slave-owning classes wanted these goods but had little else to trade than their slaves (link). The palm oil trade began around 1800 when its uses as an industrial lubricant became known. By 1870—with the slave trade under pressure—palm oil displaced it as the chief export from West African countries, including Nigeria. Soon Nigeria became the world’s largest producer, a rank it held until 1934; today Nigeria is still the third-largest producer of this commodity after Indonesia and Malaysia.

In support of this trade, Britain established two Nigerian Protectorates in 1900. Readers of this series will not be surprised that one was called Southern, the other Northern. (It almost goes with the landscape.) Suppression of the slave trade began with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 by the British Parliament—the sentiment behind it traceable to the Quakers. Thank you, George Fox. Britain’s “protection” was of trade; it attempted to bring it under its control. In the process it disrupted traditional arrangements and, among others, effectively ended one of the oldest kingdoms in the region, the Benin Empire of the Edo peoples—once centered in the area between Lagos and the Niger River delta.

I attach a map of Nigeria’s states to make this plain. Note here particularly the very small territory of Lagos but with a huge population (circa 18 million) and the huge north-eastern Borno State with its low population (circa 5 million)—where Boko Haram is mostly active.

Nigeria’s oil industry began its current course in 1914 with the British Crown seizing all oil and mineral properties under Nigerian soil the legal property of the Crown. That situation still obtains today, with the Nigerian government controlling all oil activity—but doing so under joint ventures of which the foreign origins are revealed by name: Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Agip (Italian), Total (French), and Texaco (merged with Chevron). By law these joint ventures must carry the word “Nigeria” in their names. But call them what you will, I say. The flavor doesn’t change.

Virtually all of that oil is located in the Niger River delta region although some off-shore activity is also going on. A NASA picture I have found of that delta will conclude this post—except some thoughts about its implications. Lovely photo. You might never imagine what goes on invisibly below.

The situation we see here—extending back several centuries—is that of a mature and still energetic western culture intruding into an area which was predominantly pagan and primitive but with part of it, the northern portion, already organized by decentralized Muslim rule—no caliphate is present. The West is still dominant—principally through its westernized indigenous population. But its direct rule has obviously weakened. That Nigeria must now be tattooed on top of Chevron, say.

Arnold Toynbee held, in his A Study of History, that a decaying civilization will, as it looses its charm and élan, be attacked simultaneously by an internal and an external proletariat—the first characterized as marginalized, the second as barbarians. It is reasonable to suspect that in the case of the West semi-tribal and still-primitive Muslim groups (even if led by members of the Muslim elite) represent Toynbee’s “external proletariat.”  Locally, of course, as in Nigeria, they represent an “internal proletariat.” Boko Haram may be viewed as a representative group. In the minds of such insurgents, the history of the West in Nigeria—and the behavior of Nigeria’s own westernized elites—will produce a reaction. They do not share in the wealth. Furthermore, they are products of a still young culture (Islam) in which religious beliefs retain their meaning and lend energy which is completely dried up in the West.
†Nigeria has 10 cities with populations of 1 million or more and another 9 with populations from 900,000 to 500,000; call these second tier. I don’t think that’s common knowledge in the United States. Compare that with Texas which is close in size to Nigeria. Texas has 3 cities of 1 million or more and another 3 in the second tier.
I’ve shown one image of Lagos in an earlier post in this series. Here I’m showing another view.

Image credits:

Map of Badagry and Lagos: Google Maps.
Images of British Protectorates: Wikipedia (link) and (link).
State Map of Nigeria: Wikipedia “Nigeria” (link).
Niger River Delta: NASA, shown by Wikipedia (link) but turned by me to orient N-S.

Posts in this Series:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Only the Monarch Knows

“Spring must not be permitted to arrive without notice”—to echo what I said in 2013. Every year this day gives me occasion to try understand again why our tilted axis causes the lengthening and shortening of days—and the two midpoints of this recurring cycle produce equal nights and days. On this day also, without fail, I wonder how, under current theories of planetary formation, we explain why our axial tilt exists at all. We watched a good documentary yesterday on Nova titled “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies,” read Monarchs. Their navigational abilities are still not understood and never may be. Two great puzzles in succeeding days. What bumped the earth in some long night millions of years ago to make it tilt in its rotation?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nigeria’s North-South Divide

This is the second post on Boko Haram; the first is here.

The seventh largest country in the world is Nigeria, with 183.5 million people. That is not a secret, of course, but not exactly the impression one has from news reports—especially when the issue triggering coverage is a renegade band of terrorist insurgents, like Boko Haram. Appropriate images for that context in the media are desert landscapes or tribal people in traditional dress. (An analogous pictorial representation of the United States would be to show pictures of Navajo festivals in Arizona.) Here we’re likely to see men in robes drumming or landscapes—like the following photo; it shows the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram originated…

…rather than cityscapes like the second image, which shows Lagos, a city of 17.5 million people, located kitty-corner, you might say, from Boko Haram, thus in the extreme south east corner of the country.

To give that huge population some dimension, I repeat, from the last post, that Nigeria is only about a third larger than Texas. Its population per square mile is 515, that of Texas 100 (the United States has 91 people per square mile).

The country—measured in area—is roughly split in half between a more or less secularized southern and a predominantly Muslim northern half. The two major parties of the country, however, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP, with its base in the south) and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC, with its base in the north) both hold secularist ideologies. PDP is the dominant party; it has won every presidential election and therefore rules the country. The two maps above tell the story; the first shows areas where Sharia law is being actively followed; the second shows areas controlled by the PDP (which has ruled the country under democratic arrangements since 1999, and its opposition, the CPC. The Islamic culture, with a decided disinclination to participate in democracy, has no meaningful representation at all. Yet all the news that really reaches us here is focused on a tiny third element, Boko Haram. Tiny? Yes. Its core is a mere 10,000 people. They are attempting to implement the Islamic conception of politics, thus central religious rule from the top by a caliphate. 

The time-line that I show here, extending from Nigeria’s independence to the current time, illustrates how the Muslim insurgency arose just three years after a difficult time of succeeding military dictatorships and civil conflicts—thus as soon as a Western type democracy began to take hold. Great powers participated in the Civil War, with Britain and the Soviet Union backing the Nigerians, France aiding the Biafran regime.

That regime, shown to the left, lasted a mere three years, but while it existed it occupied almost exactly the same territory as Nigeria’s earliest-known kingdom, the Kingdom of Nri, founded in 1000 AD. The area of Biafra corresponds in our time with the oil-rich region of the Niger river’s delta.

Soon after 1999—and Nigeria’s embrace of western-style democracy—a northern Sunni fundamentalist and preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, founded Boko Haram in 2002. His aim was to impose Sharia law over the entire region, including but not limited to Nigeria. He lasted seven years and was then arrested and killed. His deputy, one Abubaka Shekau took over and continues in his place, as best we know, although reports of his death keep surfacing in Nigeria at intervals. Most of Boko Haram’s more major activities have been largely confined to the Borno State at the tip of Nigeria’s north-east corner.
Image credits:

Borno landscape: Wikipedia, "Boko Haram" (link).
Lagos: Wikipedia, "Lagos" (link).
Political Map: Nigerian Muse (link).
Map of Sharia Law: Wikipedia, "Boko Haram" (link).
Biafra: Wikipedia, "Nigeria" (link).

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dipping a Toe into Lake Chad

A thought I’ve had over the years is that today—and presumably fated to last for a few centuries more—a process will be unfolding right under our eyes much resembling what “went down” in Europe during the last centuries of Roman rule and continued long thereafter. That process is the transformation of Africa.

A current phenomenon that can lend some anchorage for investigating how good that thought of mine may be are the troubles assigned these days to the Boko Haram insurgency in and around Nigeria. Even a cursory look immediately reveals an extraordinary complexity not made even faintly visible by current news coverage. If I take myself as an ordinary modern, I know virtually nothing about Nigeria, never mind the regions immediately touching Lake Chad on its eastern edge—which is the current center of the insurgency; in fact today is the first I’ve ever even heard of Lake Chad. To correct that I present a map of Nigeria and point to the upper right corner where Lake Chad colors the screen blue. As you can see, a part of the lake is in Nigeria, specifically in the Borno region which has its capital in Maiduguri.

The entire northern territory of Nigeria, reaching down to below where the name of the country is actually printed, is populated by Islamics. They constitute just a shade over 50 percent of total Nigerian population; Christians are 48 percent, the rest adhere to what we might call pagan-style beliefs.

The first kingdom known to history in this territory, named after the Niger River (see inset), was the Kingdom of Nri, located just to the east of the Niger’s delta. It was founded by the Igbo people who, today, represent the second largest ethnic grouping in the country. The year was 1000. At is farthest extension north, the kingdom reached to about Enugu, thus a small part of today’s Nigeria. A century later the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which became Islamic around 1068, covered large parts of Chad and part of today’s Nigeria; the Nigerian portion corresponded directly with the Borno region—and the Islamic influence expanded from there west and to the south—but not very much south.

Those earliest developments in effect set up the conflict which today’s events still echo as the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian central government. There has always been a north-south tension within this realm, the North always more populous and poorer, the south always richer.

To underline the complexity here, be it noted that Nigeria has 250 ethnic groupings—the largest of which are the Yoruba (west), the Igbo (east), and the Hausa (northern Islamics). These and other groupings speak 512 different languages—and it is therefore not surprising that English is the country’s official language. English. Not French. And that is because Nigeria figures in colonial history as first governed by the Royal Niger Company (1886), then by the British Government (1900), and finally—until the United Kingdom granted the country its independence in 1960—becoming in 1901 a British Protectorate and thus joining the British Empire.

I began by referring to the Roman Empire—the fall of which then set in motion a vast Medieval process of nation building, also building nations out of countless tribes and ethnicities, all of which strenuously fought the process. The role of the Romans in today’s process was played by the British Empire. After it withdrew in 1960, the process began in earnest. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Boko Haram, the name of the insurgency, translates as Forbidden Teaching (haram being forbidden, boko meaning culture, teaching, heritage—the word thought by some to have been derived from the English word “book”). Here we have a situation of a younger culture actively resisting the decadent overhang of an older one—while pursuing with the brutal energy of youth something of a biological imperative to multiply and to cover the earth.

For those who like to have some size comparisons, Nigeria (with 366,000 square miles) is significantly larger, but in the same ballpark, as Texas (with 269,000). Lake Chad (with 521 square miles of area) is greater than Lake Saint Clair in Michigan (430) and smaller than Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana (with 631 square miles).

This, so far, a small toe dipped into Lake Chad. I may return to enlarge upon this at a future time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Policing Yard and Drive

The activity I’m about to describe is familiar to all viewers of mystery series. The viewer will see a long line of policemen moving across a landscape side by side and poking the ground with sticks or clubs for clues. In those mysteries this seemingly happens instantly—as soon as some vital thing (like the murder-weapon or a lost child) needs to be found. I often marvel at the power of the Hero Detective who can summon up such masses of uniforms just minutes (seemingly) after the need arises.

In the Army they used to call this “policing.” We were marched out and made to move across open terrain every other morning or so—the object being to pick up litter. The word, of course, goes back to the Latin politia, civil administration—and its deepest root is the Greek polis, or city—a place where massed humans make a mess. Indeed “police” is powerfully associated with order, keeping and restoring it.

This is the nasty season hereabouts—and policing is in order. The snow has almost entirely disappeared and revealed the junk, branches, and litter it had covered over. My own policing was of the solitary kind, just one old man picking up branches and the occasional littered package or candy wrapper the wind had blown on the yard. Done quite voluntarily—without the usual grumbling that accompanied policing in the Army. All in the name of order. I wonder if they still do it in the Army—the same way we used to do it. Is it a fit activity for “warriors”? We were just soldiers in my day—with every fit male subject to service. In what now seems ancient times, soldiers were called even more carelessly GIs, an acronym for “general issue.” Not bad for people who won a world war. Back then you could herd them out there. These days that “policing” may well be hired out to companies, some even listed on the NY Stock exchange.

It looks a little better out there; and with Spring just four days away, it already feels like Spring, but the smell is not yet here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ambiguous Independence

While I am on March 15—and gauging how time has changed (see last post)—I might note that today is Hungary’s Independence day, originally marked in 1848. As a little boy in Hungary, that day left a very big impression on me—of the full-chested, patriotic sort. The 1848 Revolution had thrown off the Hapsburg rule, but I was living under a Regent then who, at least symbolically, represented a royalty somewhere. That Independence only lasted for a year—put down with Russian help—so that Emperor Franz Joseph I was back in power in 1849. But we weren’t informed of such fine details in grade school. Still, to this day, no March 15th ever passes without memories of those emotions of collective unity, whether real or imagined. I also remember my trip to Europe as a young American soldier which took place in 1956—right in the middle of the second Hungarian revolution, also put down by Russian forces. The feelings relate to an ideal world never actually discoverable under our actual skies. The contrast is known as growing up.

The Assets: Cancelled As Soon as Shown

We are watching The Assets, described as a period drama, thus the dramatization of a real event, the CIA’s identification and arrest of Aldrich Ames as a CIA mole in 1994. This is a superbly made series, available from Netflix, originally shown by ABC in 2014. It has a kind of paradoxical feel to it because the Cold War had as good as ended, ended for a time, at least, and another major thing, the War on Terror was about to launch. Yet in the bowels of the intelligence services, people were obsessedly engaged in doing what John le Carré had first unveiled.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Assets—as a marker of how time has changed—is that  ABC cancelled the series abruptly. Its pilot episode had the lowest ever viewership in the 18-49 demographic among the big three networks. A death sentence. Too sophisticated, too complicated. All that stuff, you know… Yesterday.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It's Pi-Day!

This being year 15 in the Twenty-First Century, most of us in the general public became aware today, for the first time ever, that based on a tradition inaugurated by the San Francisco Exploratorium, a museum, in 1988, there is such a thing as Pi-Day every March 14th. That is because that famous number, begins 3.14159926…. This year only, the number of the year itself, ignoring those thousands, is an echo of π.

This led me ponder how π came to be discovered. I opened my Excel and started to play with ratios. To the toying mind, the ratio is relatively easily discovered. If you already know the circumference of a circle and its diameter, dividing the first by the last produces that magic number. Back before such wonders as Excel, the early geometer could use string and two sticks to draw a pretty good circle in sand—and then use more string to measure circumference and the diameter. Matching those strings will yield π more or less—in round numbers 3—but the circumference string will be ever-so-slightly longer. Early on the ratio calculated was 22/7th, which yield 3.1428… These days we know π out to 13.3 trillion digits—but using 3 or 22/7 will get there for pie-baking purposes. If we have a diameter or 4 inches, the formula

     Circumference = π * d

will yield 12.566 inches. If we substitute plain 3, the result will be 12 inches; if we use 22/7, the result will be 12.571 inches.

The value of π, however, was in calculating the actual Area of the circle. This was initially done by overlaying a circle with a polygon—from squares to up to 96-sided figures (Archimedes) and then calculating the area by calculating the area of the polygon—which is at least straight-forward. Eventually, by examining results so discovered, not least the ratio of those areas to the radius of the circle, yielded the understanding that if the area is divided by radius squared, we get the same number as we get by dividing the circumference by the diameter. Therefore the formula for the Area is….

     Area = π * r2

Worth noting here is that π required measurement before it came to be revealed. Circumference was easy, but area required major efforts to approximate the circle with shapes that have definitely measurable angles—as shown in the graphic from Wikipedia (link):

Herewith, finally, some ratios of a circle’s measurements just for the fun of it.

Some Ratios
     Circumference = pi * d
r = radius
C = Circumference
     Area =  pi * (r*r)
d = diameter
A = Area

Much fun in an entirely open-ended way—to play with these ratios. That the numbers don’t come out clean, and that even after trillions of digits π does not yield a repeating series of decimals, makes me think of God’s sense of humor.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Happy Anniversary

Two years ago today White Smoke rose from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel (link here). One person’s Friday the Thirteenth today is another’s occasion to celebrate the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ assumption of the papacy. I note here also how the days of the week wander as time moves relentlessly on. Two years ago this day was Wednesday. Next year it will be Sunday—what with the leap year inserting a day and leaping over the Saturday that waits in vain. Saturday will have its chance eventually—but not until 2021, the eighth anniversary of Francis’ papacy, if he lives that long (namely 85). What does one say on such days? Many happy returns?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Office and the Holder

If I respect the office, can I then engage in blatant disrespect for the person who holds it? In actual practice, doesn’t one behavior very rapidly bleed into the other? Suppose we take this relationship—office and holder—and apply it lower down in the ranks of the world. When I was in the U.S. Army, it was certainly quite impossible to salute the commanding generally while standing at attention while loudly muttering “here goes an idiot with stars.”

I’m far from the only one who has noted that opponents of President Obama feel entitled to treat him with visible contempt, ascribed to his person, while nominally respecting the office. See, for instance, this February 25 column in the Daily Princetonian whose author, Ryan Dukeman, dates this behavior as beginning with Obama’s swearing in ceremony (link).

In actual practice open disrespect (however hedged in by phony distinctions between office and holder) brings in its train the cheapening and discount of authority—not least of the authority of that empty office too. This occurred to me when reading about the racist video made public by some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at University of Oklahoma in Norman. ΣΑΕ was founded in 1856; its creed, entitled The True Gentleman, can be read here.

I learned from Arnold Toynbee early in life that culture is shaped by elites—and the great majority follow this lead by imitation—mimesis, in Toynbee’s words. What our elites do will, in due time, be echoed by the population as a whole. To be sure, minorities will be disgusted, will refuse to imitate, and in this process begin to form future elites. So there is always hope in the long run. As for today, I cannot help but feel that the attacks on Obama, in the name of political ideology, are heavily colored by racial bias—however outrageous that sounds in an age that believes in inevitable progress.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fashions in Words

A discussion on spontaneity had me asserting that what the word had once meant in popular speech say in the time of World War II—namely untaught, natural behavior—has had an odd lift in the Age of the Media to mean something more. The word derives from the Latin sponte, of one’s accord, willingly. The new meaning carries the flavor as of a characteristic which rises above the behavior of ordinary humans. To make this point, I also tried to find a word that has lost rank in popular usage. Neurotic came to mind. It seemed to me that it had been on everybody’s lips in the 1950s. The word shrink arose in this context. I headed off to look at these words and Brigitte wanted me to look up shrink as well. Her feeling is that it has also lost status.

Google Ngrams to the rescue. Herewith the contrast between “spontaneous” and “deliberate”:

Spontaneous has certainly had a quite marked rise beginning circa 1925. The word peaked in 1982 but is still beating Deliberate in 2000. Deliberate, meanwhile, was at essentially the same level of usage as in 1800.

In the next one I contrast “neurotic” and “psychotic”:

My gut feel turns out to be right. Neurotic made a mountain that peaked in 1952—and its been downhill since. I used Psychotic as the contrast, which began rising later, peaked in 1972, and is now used somewhat more frequently than neurotic. Perhaps things are getting worse.

Shrink comes from head-shrinker, slang for psychiatrist. Plotting its use using Ngram is not much use because the short version can mean anything from physically shrinking something or the slang phrase, which may not be much used in written documents. Since 1940, however, that word has lost about 7 percent of its usage, so Brigitte’s feel is also justified.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Don’t Mess With Tradition

The U.S. Constitution is, surely, a well-known document across the world and, surely, there is a translation of it into Persian. No doubt that the powers-that-be in Iran fully understand what our President’s treaty-making powers are and, also, the extent to which they are hedged in. Those powers are put into this sentence (Article II, Section 2): [The President] “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided that two thirds of the Senators present concur.”

Well, evidently 47 Republican Senators here don’t believe Iran is fully in the picture. They have written an “open letter” to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic,” which begins thus:

It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.

The genius behind this letter is one Tom Cotton (R-AR), a junior senator. Its significance is that it represents an unprecedented action by a nominally conservative group in Congress to engage in foreign affairs directly—which is clearly what this letter (link) is trying to do.

I was still a young man in the Army when I learned (taking college courses on the side from a University of Maryland extension operating in Baumholder, Germany) that political designations can and do lose their meaning over time—thus that “liberal,” once heavily Tory, you might say, can come to mean something way-way to the Whig.

My own bible on what conservative means is Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Early in that book Kirk places six canons of conservative thought. The sixth one states:

Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.

Later in the book, Kirk develops the meaning of Providence (properly with a leading cap) to mean respect for tradition which, in his view, is an imperfect but largely reliable structure that captures the higher intentions Providence implies. Now it is clearly a rather “hasty innovation” to produce the impression that Congress is an active participant in treaty negotiations—and that, in treaty negotiations a sovereign entity, like the United States of America, can and should present contrary positions to the negotiating partner, as in speaking out of both sides of the mouth.

A mere 21 years have passed since Russell Kirk died in 1994—and already one is mentally tempted to rewrite the title of his book (looking at today’s conservatives) as The Conservative Mindless. Not Kirk’s fault. Indeed he foresaw that “hasty innovation” can turn into “a devouring conflagration.” And one of those conflagrations, sooner or later, will produce the Man on Horseback chasing the Tom Cottons of this world into hiding—and even that horse is not too far away as the oil runs out.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Existential and Spiritual Judgement

The question, What are the religious propensities? and the question, What is their philosophic significance? are two entirely different orders of question from the logical point of view; and, as a failure to recognize this fact distinctly may breed confusion, I wish to insist upon the point a little….

In recent books on logic, the distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgement or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werturteil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgement. Neither judgement can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.
     [William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1]

I read this paragraph the first time ever on my first day in college—while waiting for the opening ceremony of our Freshman year to begin. I understood it, no doubt about it, but not the way I do now. Here is the methodological answer to many puzzles that involve matter and mind, body and soul, and so on. There is experience, and who can deny it. Then there is a judgement made of its meaning. And the “examined life” is a fusion of these two.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Locating Identity

One of my personal Eureka moments came many years ago when I discovered the mitochondria, the tiny structures that produce the energy used within our cells. Mitochondria have DNA of their own—separate from the DNA in each cell’s nucleus. In humans, and most other species that have mitochondria, these structures are passed on to offspring exclusively from the mother. Hence, tracking mitochondrial DNA, we can search ever backward in time tracing the maternal line. We haven’t found Eve yet, but it may be possible. Adam is quite untraceable.

This came to mind yesterday when I read about claims (still not fully accepted) that the caterpillar and the butterfly that it becomes may be of two different species that once joined forces for a kind of biological tour de force. My mitochondrial encounter years ago suggested to me that bodies are chemical civilizations—imperfectly uniting quite diverse strands of living things—and indeed coexisting only because they are a kind of community of separates rather than a seamless whole. Humans can only digest, for instance—and therefore live—because we host a diverse community of bacteria.

Our bodies, of course, do not remain the same even from day to day. Yesterday we retrieved all or most of our photo albums. Some of them have photos that go back to the nineteenth century. Pictures of ourselves show the enormous changes that have taken place in our own bodies—which in turn, all these impressions, shaken well in a blender, made me wonder what identity means—and how it might be located.

Amusingly that word, identity, derives from the Latin phrase idem et idem, best translated into our own “same-old, same-old.” Thus identity is sameness. But in the physical world nothing is ever, strictly speaking, the same—not even that hard, attractive spoon I use to stir the coffee which, by chance, we “abstracted” from a house we rented in Florida three years ago. Even that spoon has lost some mass in the meantime.

If we cling strictly to a materialistic explanation of identity, it turns out that the best explanation for identity is statistical. I am statistically much the same today as yesterday, and never mind the 50 to 70 billion cells that died since 10:23 yesterday, which—thanks to Summer Time’s arrival (even time changes)—is 11:23 today.

Approximation must suffice to locate identity in time and space; to locate it absolutely we must leave the reservation and, having reread Plato’s Phaedo, we must start to feel familiar with the concept that the human self is immaterial and indestructible; its relationship to DNA, cellular or mitochondrial, is rather loose and tentative. Which suggests the happy thought that when our next caterpillar breaks is chrysalis and emerges as a butterfly, a single gorgeous soul will flutter away even if generated by two species in cooperation.