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.