Sunday, January 31, 2016


Let me look back 84 years from MMXVI to MCMXXXII. Why? As a little exercise in retrospection to a day, January 31, 1932, when Brigitte was not yet born. She would be born the next day, February 1 of that leap year. 2016 is identical to 1932: every date in 1932 falls on the same day of the week as in 2016. Brigitte was born on Monday—and will celebrate her 84th on Monday once more.

So what kind of a year was MCMXXXII? Given a perspective of 84 years, 1932 looked pretty ordinary—the same-old, same-old, you might say. In many places even the same parties were involved in the same sorts of conflicts. Japan was more aggressive—invading Manchuria, for instance. These days China is more muscular—creating mini-Manchurias in the South China Sea; Japan seems about as troubled (and helpless) about those islands now as China was about Manchuria then.

The ISIS of that era was just forming—the Nazi party in Germany and the Fascist in Italy, but things hadn’t heated up as yet. To be sure—and I’m restricting this just to February, Brigitte’s month of birth, Goebbels had already nominated Hitler to run for the presidency of Germany; Hindenburg had also agreed to run again. But Hitler was not qualified for the job because he was not a German citizen (echoes of Cruz in 2016?). Then, still in February, Hitler was appointed as a police commissioner in Braunschweig; and, as a civil servant in Germany, he gained citizenship automatically. Useful, that, for his political candidacy. About that same time. Mussolini and Pope Pius XI had an hour’s meeting in the Vatican to talk about the Lateran Treaty that “solved” the “Roman Question,” as it was then called, namely the status of a sovereign Vatican City embedded in a Fascist state. In that month, also Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union for all time; with him Stalin got rid of an irritating opponent—which did not prevent Stalin from having Trotsky assassinated in Mexico. Same-old, you might say.

To be sure, things were in bad shape in Germany, conditions paving Hitler’s rise to power. The country was an economic shambles with 6 of 20.4 million unemployed (a rate of 29.5%). Germany was struggling for the repeal of Part V of the Treaty of Versailles (thus permitting it to rearm) while France opposed it. Meanwhile the League of Nations (old name but same-old) was pleading with China and Japan to enter negotiations; but Japan held on to Manchuria until the end of World War II.

The United States was not doing so well either. Of its 50.4 million workforce, 12.1 million were also unemployed (23.5%). Today the number of unemployed is 7.9 million, but the workforce has trippled; hence the unemployment rate is at 5 percent. Then, as now, low-cost lending by government—to restore growth—was a big issue. Hence in Brigitte’s birth-month The Reconstruction Finance Corporation began operations—lending to banks so that they would lend to industry. (The RFC lasted until 1954.) The U.S. was also seeing the beginning of a brief climate change: the Dust Bowl days were just starting. The first organized efforts were launched to repeal Prohibition. The U.S. hosted the Olympic Winter games in Lake Placid. All through 1932, of course, Hoover was President—but in the fall elections Franklin D. Roosevelt won a landslide victory.

John Galsworthy (he of the Forsyth Saga) won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Werner Heisenberg (he of the Uncertainty Principle) the prize for Physics. The Forsyths would morph into the 1 percent—and the uncertainty principle would become as much a law of society as it is of physics. All up in the air; even more so now—and Aldous Huxley knew it; he published Brave New World in 1932. What we do know about MCMXXXII and don’t about MMXVI is what followed it fairly soon; soon after 1932 came World War II, and a great and very destructive war it was; but for most of those now living, it is almost forgotten. Not so for those who look back on the good old days…

Happy Birthday tomorrow, Brigitte. You belong to the lucky who, despite the endless chaos, survived and thrived, and now you can look back on it all and then, looking around, just shake your head…

Friday, January 29, 2016

That Interesting State of Nature

Not so curiously (when I think about it) gloomy, coldish, and wet weather brings to my mind that interesting seventeenth, eighteenth century concept of “the State of Nature.” One doesn’t hear much about it these days—although one ought to; we may be headed back in that direction.

The thought tends to arise early in the morning when (in this house anyway), getting the morning paper takes a fair walk; I have to dress for it, and bundling up is even better. Sleet, remnants of snow lie (and often are just then falling) on the ground; wind that sometimes shatters my half-asleep balance with its gusts, and never mind its distant majestic roaring in the sky—together these phenomena make me think, for the two minutes I’m outside, that I am in the State of Nature; I do so even when the temperature is almost warm, 20° to 32° F, say. I’m in that state just long enough to realize that (thank the Lord) I’m not permanently there. Physical discomfort, to be sure, was not what Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Hume had in mind. These luminaries of the Enlightenment were using the lens of Reason, with variable application of actual observation, to illuminate how organized societies came about. But “state of nature” may also be understood my way, thus as exposure to it; and then I’m also reminded of the philosophical meaning of the phrase.

There was no TV back in the seventeenth century—and no endless choice between programs eager to show us how monkeys, penguins, elephants, and countless other species still live (if they are lucky), in the state of nature. Thus Hobbes could speak of man as an isolated creature at war with all other men, his life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and [thankfully during my short paper-walk] short.” Hobbes represents one pole of State of Nature—the negative; the cure for which was Leviathan, the mortal god. The other pole is represented by Rousseau; for him the State of Nature was a kind of mundane paradise; the State then becomes something oppressive by introducing, applying, and exploiting the dangerous concept of property. Hume’s stand on the subject is closest to mine; which makes sense: he is the youngest of those luminaries, born in 1711 (versus Hobbes born in 1588). Hume in effect dismisses the State of Nature as a fiction; but he grants it a minor status as a philosophical concept to think about.

Observation of Nature and its creatures—not least anthropological studies of remnants of primitive cultures—show that humans have never really lived in the State of Nature, at least as philosophically understood, whether negatively or positively. But all people who’ve ever lived have reacted to weather like we have had lately with my rather jaundiced view of it. Hence tents, huts, settlements. Hence interaction with helpful others. Hence the State—which is just a function of population density—always at least potentially present, its rudiments always visible.

Those rudiments of the State, of course, include cooperation, voluntary self-limitation, and obedience to rules held in common. Hobbes' solitary man could do anything he pleased; the stamp on his forehead said libertarian. But that way lies chaos—which we’ve never found in actuality except in times when the State begins to wither and, in the process, a return to a much more decentralized state of affairs is in process. Chaos observed? Yes. In Syria for instance. And in a milder variety here at home as well. The parts are separating, hence things seem chaotic; let’s hope that that situation is only temporarily. Let’s hope that the center will too hold.

That hopeful note because, this morning, the sun is bright; it’s lovely out there in Nature, especially when viewed though a window looking at the trees in the distance while listening to the crackling in the walls as the radiators are getting a nice supply of hot, hot water to keep this micro-Leviathan cozy.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bless That Tilt

The odds that the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the sun’s (23.4°) will change in anybody’s lifetime—including the babies who are being born as I write—is virtually zero. Never absolutely—not in this dimension where everything is ruled by flux. But given that zero, it is amusing to discover how many people have taken time to think about the consequences that would ensue if our axis and the sun’s were parallel—not least among them Isaac Asimov. We did so too, this morning, talking about seasons, and that because its “unseasonably” warm on this late January day. If our own axis matched that of the sun (see link on this blog), seasons as we know them would disappear—so what else would change?

Endless opinion, mostly negative. Brigitte took a, for her, innately more positive stance—always discovering, at least where humanity was concerned, that we would be, as always, active and creative. Thus she rejected the view that humanity would just be scratching out a meager living in an essentially undeveloped state just north and south of the tropical regions. No. Humanity would make the most of it; if the season did not change, humanity would do the moving. But the environment, at least, would be much less interesting. No seasons, neither Spring flowers nor the dreary view of leafless trees. No animal—and worse yet no butterfly—migrations. Some say no technology would ever have developed for lack of hardship that winter provides. But then, Brigitte says, there is human curiosity—also left out of the equation.

Asimov predicts an environment in which Ice Ages are Ice Permanencies—and keeps most of his article on another subject. His article was originally published in the August 1977 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction†; in it he is poking fun at John Milton who, in Paradise Lost, thought that the tilting of the axis was a kind of punishment that went with the Fall. To the contrary, says Asimov, the tilt was a blessing. Brigitte and I certainly agree. We’d rather believe in Global Warming causing this “hot” January morning (34° F) than the beginning of a slow process of axial tilt movement to the vertical. Global Warming, turns out, will have at least some of the same effects as a tilt-adjustment.
†Available on this site—if you are willing to page down, down, and down until the magazine’s cover comes into view.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


The German word of my title is usually translated as “the bridge of donkeys” into English; but no sooner read, we are told its Latin derivation, pons asinorum, and referred to Euclid’s fifth proposition, the one that deals with isosceles triangles.

I learned that phrase in German; in German usage the word is simply a mnemonic—as it also does in Dutch and Czech—with an implied confession, when we use it, of our close relation to donkeys. The discovery that it has quite other meanings in other languages, meanings more closely related to Euclid, had to await my reading of Frederick W.H. Myer’s book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, a late-nineteenth century work, where the following sentence startled me into awakeness:

He [see below] may thus be ranked as the only man who has ever done valuable service to Mathematics without being able to cross the Ass’s Bridge.
     [Myers, p. 68]

While the phrase instantly brought the word eselsbrücke to my mind, the context was alien—and set me to investigating the phrase. I’d never encountered it in a book before. Well…

It turns out that Euclid’s Fifth Proposition—which simply asserts that triangles with at least two equal sides will have angles under the base equal to one another—was the last proposition medieval students had to study. If they managed to understand Euclid’s proof, they had then crossed the bridge from donkey to student status.

I am showing the diagram Euclid used in his proof of this assertion. The “base” here is BC—and the angle under the base would seem to be greater than the angle above. Therefore some serious proving is involved. How Euclid does it may be found here, on page 11.

I won’t go into the proof itself except to say that it is more complex than that for the first four propositions. And I’d point out that this graphic, if you look at it poetically, may suggest a bridge. Its top is BC and it is supported by F and G. Thus the graphic may have suggested the name.

The man to whom Myers refers was Dase (no first name given), a math wizard from childhood until his death. He could not even understand the simplest arithmetic as taught in first grade—yet the Academy of Sciences at Hamburg employed him to produce tables of factors and prime numbers out to nearly 8 million. (Factors are whole numbers that divide exactly into another whole number leaving no remainder; primes only ever have two factors: 1 and themselves.) Now as for that bridge, Dase never even came close to crossing it. Ah, the mystery of mind…

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Satellites and Prester John

We live in a time scrubbed clean of myths—one reason why, for most of us (not least our soldiers engaged all over the Middle East), the name “Prester John” produces, at best, a vague sensation of having heard it before but little else; and for those born after the 1950s, probably nothing at all. The myth of Prester John is perhaps the most thoroughly forgotten among others. Among the others are the Lost City of Atlantis, El Dorado, The Flying Dutchman, and the Wandering Jew.

To take these going backwards, the Wandering Jew was a man who, having taunted Jesus, was condemned to live until the Second Coming—and therefore still wanders the earth. The Flying Dutchman is a sailing ship condemned to sail the oceans until some crime has been atoned for—sometimes (at least until the satellites came) still seen by sailors in storms. El Dorado was a mythological chief among the tribes of present-day Columbia who covered himself in gold dust as an initiation rite; the conquistadores transmuted the man, originally El Hombre Dorado, into a kingdom, eventually into a hidden empire where gold was more common than dirt. And Atlantis was a great island and city somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which, after long dominance, fell out of the favor with the Greek gods; they caused it to sink; it has now disappeared. Until it did Atlantis, much like El Dorado and Prester John’s kingdom, was the object of endless, if mostly literary, voyages of discovery.

Let me now tackle Prester John; that Prester was originally Presbyter. That word can mean “priest” or “elder” being derived from the Greek word for “old man”—thus Old Man John. The myth is that John had been a missionary of the Nestorian version of Christianity (dated to the fifth century (link)) and that he had established a wealthy kingdom in the Middle East somewhere. The myth arose in the twelfth century, thus toward the end of the time of the Crusades. It was evidently started by Crusaders. Those people, of course, operated over much the same area as our troops are now operating in various capacities—thus Syria,Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. By contrast with our troops, the Crusaders had no satellites, had only a sketchy knowledge of distant cultures, but great ambition to strike it rich somehow. Therefore to find Prester John and his domain was a kind of ambition that produces enduring myths.

The old myths are gone. We have modern varieties, of course. There is ET; and the little green men; there are flying saucers; the satellites can’t see them either—but people driving by night are not so blind. As for the ancient and the older legends, they are fading in proportion to the spread of tiny smart-phones. That great, powerful island in the Atlantic? Since the Crusades that island has risen from the Ocean; why didn’t anybody notice? We call it the United States of America. El Dorado is now on Wall Street but, despite hedge funds and their kin, it is still refusing to yield great wealth to ordinary veterans. The Flying Dutchman hasn’t been seen in recent times, but we have yet to find Flight 370 of the Malaysian Airlines; that plane’s absence suggests that a modern version of the old myth is now in  the making. Let me give it a start. I would suggest that that famous Boeing 777-200ER may still be flying up there—but hidden from sight by a Romulan cloaking device. As for the Wandering Jew, he disappeared even more effectively behind a cloak of political correctness. Maybe he will reappear again if Donald Trump is elected president.

Channeling Solomon

For the first time in history, it may be necessary for the Supreme Court of the United States to hire a qualified Medium. Why is that? Well, the answer is advancing technology. It is now possible for a couple to conceive a child by in vitro fertilization of a mother’s ovum and a father’s sperm. Better yet, the resulting embryo may then be frozen to be gestated (or not) based on the couple’s chosen schedule. But what if, in the meanwhile, the couple gets divorced? And one of them is unwilling actually to have the child (once it has been thawed out). You can’t divide an embryo in half. Or can you? And what if they are twins. Such cases are multiplying. Soon SCOTUS (as the knowledgeable refer to the Court) may get a case to decide. The difficulties are great—even if a precedent exists. But for best practice, perhaps channeling Solomon himself may be appropriate. Therefore a qualified Medium!

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Morning 2016

Gorgeous sunny morning
The merest breath of snow.
The fog seems to have frozen,
Has simply left the air,
And rests on grass and thatch
While the sun, arrested
In its path, stopped by this
Vision itself had wrought,
Cannot move on without
A moment’s meditation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Curious Controversy

On a quite casual look to see how heroin is derived, ultimately, from poppies, I came across the following text in Wikipedia’s article on “Morphine” (link):

Later it was found that morphine was more addictive than either alcohol or opium, and its extensive use during the American Civil War allegedly resulted in over 400,000 sufferers from the “soldier’s disease” of morphine addiction. This idea has been a subject of controversy, as there have been suggestions that such a disease was in fact a fabrication; the first documented use of the phrase “soldier’s disease” was in 1915.

I spent the best part of half-a-day trying to find the actual source for that number—and indeed for that phrase. Wikipedia’s references were in part non-functional. In due course I discovered that the number comes from a Book entitled Drug Dependence and Abuse Resource Book, published in 1971 by the National District Attorney’s Association; in that book a single article, by Gerald Starkey, entitled “The Use and Abuse of Opiates and Amphetamines” contains the passage I quote below. (Starkey, by the way, is shown as an MD in the original book—but later, one opponent labeled him a “yellow journalist”—see below.) The passage itself is quoted in Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War by Lukasz Kamienski (link). Here it is:

In 1865 there were an estimated 400,00 young War veterans addicted to Morphine… The returning veteran could be identified because he had a leather thong around his neck and a leather bag [with] Morphine Sulfate tablets, along with a syringe and a needle issued to the soldier on his discharge… This was called the “Soldier’s Disease.”

Wikipedia, above, also refers to a “controversy.” The source of that controversy is one Jerry Mandel, particularly his paper titled “The Mythical Roots of U.S. Drug Policy: Soldier’s Disease and Addiction in the Civil War,” available here. Mandel’s paper appears under the imprint of the Drug Reform Coordinating Network, better known, perhaps, as He argues that major addiction (say on the scale of 400,000) was not an actual fact of history but that, on the contrary, it is a much later phenomenon, evolved to support the War on Drugs. His claim is that the phrase “soldier’s disease” was not used in print until 1915. One writer who uses Mandel’s argument (of several such) also labeled Starkey as a “yellow journalist.”

Who do you believe? I tried an experiment. I asked Google Ngrams to trace the usage of two phrases: “soldier’s disease” and “army disease”; the latter term was also supposedly widely used during the Civil War to refer to drug addiction. Here is what Google had to say:

It would seem that the phrase “soldier’s disease” first appears strongly in the Civil War period—and is now back in force—thanks to controversies surrounding the legalization of drugs…

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


What happens when we’re at the doctor’s office and it is the State of the Body rather than that of the Union is under examination. Apart from a general look at our posture, color, and facial expression, the doctor will check three metrics—usually already obtained by his assisting nurse: temperature, blood pressure, and body weight. For good measure, the doctor may, in addition, have us sit with legs dangling and use a little hammer to see if our reflexes work. The reflexes work. The temperature is falls into the range of 95.5 to 98.8F. Our blood pressure is 120/80—the top number when the heart is pushing blood, the low for when its very temporarily resting. Our color is normal; we managed a so-so smile. We are neither too light nor too heavy. All’s well, with the State of the Body.

Similar metrics—of which, curiously, average body weight is also one—applies to the State of the Union. Here the big measures are the rate of change in Gross Domestic Product, in the Total Deficit, Employment, Income, Poverty, Income Distribution, Birth Rate, change in the Obesity Rate, especially of children, and Imminent Threat of Violence at our borders.

The earliest State of the Union reports were written and were usually heavy on international relations and sometimes quite numerical regarding budget matters; but it never occurred to early presidents to worry about galloping obesity. (For complete texts, see this link). These days State of the Union reports are heavy on Visions, Feelings, and other handy insubstantialities. It would seem that returning to metrics might be a pretty good change—real measurements of what is going on. These should be presented as graphics—and the Bureau of the Census adequately funded so that, for instance, numbers of the 2015 actual Poverty Rate would be available in January 2016; they are not. But just as such issues such as Poverty, Obesity, and Income Distribution are becoming important indicators, so also should be what is happening beyond our borders—and broad perspectives might be useful.

What we need, in other words, is a metric-rich State of the Union combined with a sober State of the World with foresight built in. It might be well to discuss global plagues, global population trends, global water resources, the state of the oceans, and the great wars—not least directly naming the Mideast conflict as the evolution of a 100-years war within the Muslim culture which will still be raging for another 70 years or so.

Just a thought…

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Terrae Incognitae

A CNN headline yesterday stated: Farewell Starman: World mourns loss of a musical giant. The person mourned was David Bowie, dead at 69, a transformative figure in Rock Music. I did not recognize the name at all—but it brought an echo. I knew at least one famous Bowie, Jim Bowie, the American nineteenth century adventurer, he who’s famous for the Bowie Knife. And I’ve known about him since I was ten. That was in Europe, but I was a great admirer of American heroes and much wishing I had a knife like Bowie’s. The David I’m talking about was born just about then.

I didn’t recognize the name because, like most people, I have terrae incognitae in my life. The great majority of them, in my case, have to do with the arts, particularly the popular arts, and especially pop music—or the institutional aspects of the movie business.

But when the “world mourns” one is inclined to look a little closer. Well, today I learned that David Bowie, who was born in London on January 8, 1947, was born as David Robert Jones. In his early musical career, he went by the name of Davy Jones, a name that no doubt meant to echo Davy Jones’ Locker, thus where drowned sailors gather after death. Our David, however, had a problem. In the highly competitive world of Rock, another Davy Jones, Davy Jones of the Monkees, was also on the musical stage. To differentiate himself from that competitor, our David changed his name to David Bowie and—here’s the rub—he renamed himself deliberately after the famed Jim Bowie of the knife. The link in my mind that sprang up over that last name was not just a coincidence.

Yesterday also threw a brief light on another of my unknown earths. News also came yesterday of the Golden Globes Awards. Bowie perhaps had prepared me for a minor shock. I realized that I knew nothing about that award either. The Oscars were familiar (the Academy Awards), but Golden Globes? Well, the Oscars have been around since 1929, the Golden Globes “only” since 1947—the year of Bowie’s birth. The Movie Industry is better known to me than Rock, but not well enough to arouse a desire to follow its annual rituals of recognition. And that, rituals of recognition, in part illuminate my own ignoring of large segments of art.

The arts were at the very center of my interest in youth. As I studied them intensely, I became aware of something. There came a time—beginning somewhere in the Renaissance but certainly maturing by the time of the early twentieth century. An invisible Curtain descended. On one side of it, the object celebrated by the art was the total focus of the activity; on the other side of that Curtain, it was the technique used (expressionism, pointislism, etc.) and later the artist who became the focus; innovation and transformation became a badge of achievement; the art itself slowly became a mere means by which the artist became visible to the World. Having made that discovery, I grew quite indifferent to those terrae of the arts in which this transformation was reaching its climax and gradually transforming itself into a means for achieving fame and wealth.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Those 25 Basis Points

The U.S. GDP clocked in at $17.968 trillion last year—a right rather huge, indeed almost unthinkable number. But the business news throughout 2015 concerned agonizing reflections on whether or not the Federal Reserve would actually raise the Federal Funds Rate, and if yes, when and by how much. Let’s look at this for a moment.

The Federal Funds Rate (FFR) is the interest charged by the Fed to lend money to banks, usually for a short period of time. The banks borrowing this money then have more to lend. If the FFR rises, money gets more expensive; if it drops, money gets cheaper.

The Fed has a target rate for such lending. Until December 16 of last year, that target was a range from 0 to 25 basis points. What those are will be explained in due time. The range exists because Fed lending can vary in price between those two number. Last December the actual rate charged averaged between 13 and 15 basis points up to December 16. Then the Fed changed its target range to 25 to 50 basis points. In other words, the average of all lending had to fall somewhere at or between those numbers. Since the increase, the actual FFR rate has been around 36 basis points, thus significantly less than the maximum of 50. For a look at December results, see this table provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (link).

So how much is that 25 point increase the Fed finally decided to institute? The best way to explain that is by reference to a percentage point. Everybody understands that a percent is one hundredth part of something. 1% of a dollar is a penny. Now each percent could also be divided by 100. In that case each percent would have 100 parts. And each of those parts would have a name. And that name is the Basis Point. So there are 100 basis points inside each penny.

Now just as a trillion is difficult to grasp (never mind nearly 18 of them) so also a basis point is quite invisible—a minute portion of a penny you might be able to scratch off with a very hard knife. 25 basis points are, therefore, a quarter of a penny.

When we increase the quantity of money, those basis point start having meaning. On $100 it’s a quarter, on $1,000 is $2.50, on 10,000 it’s $25. But, of course, when you borrow millions daily, it actually becomes quite visible. What about 25 basis points of that $18 billion? Well, on that amount those basis points produce a charge of $45 million. But, when I think about it, that won’t even buy me a single nuclear submarine; we’re talking billions of dollars per unit there…

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Three Kims

Korea came to be divided in 1948, thus before the Korean War began. That division came about because the two victors of World War II, the Soviets and the United States, divided the country into uneven halves: the bigger but mountainous North and the more advanced but smaller South. The victors, to be sure, would rapidly evolve into ideological opponents. But perhaps the more telling part of the situation was that the first of the Kims to which my title refers, Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994—Kim is the last name), became the premier of North Korea in 1948. Something in his genes or makeup—together with the ideological conflict which the division of Korea represented—has produced one of the more curious phenomena in international relations: here is a tiny country, representing 0.35 percent of the world’s population; it exist in a kind of independence by using now one and now some other of the Great Powers of the world to side with it (more or less half-heartedly always), so that it can remain unaligned—while the ruling class, i.e. the Kims and their followers, can live in luxury while the population is poor.

Concerning that poverty, let me contrast South and North Korea. The North has more land (120,540 square km) the South has less (100,210 sq km). The North has fewer people (24.9 million), the South has more (50.6 million). The north has a GDP of $15.4 billion ($621 per capita); the South has $1.39 trillion ($27,513 per capita).

Concerning the Kims, they have been able to retain power over three generations. Kim Il-Sung was followed by his son (Kim Jong-il (1941-2011)) and by his grandson (Kim Jong-un, born 1983)—and the Young One seems as able as his elders in playing the same game of chicken, threatening the Great Powers—and the rich Korea to his south; this has kept the population poor, in great anxiety of war or terror, and the Kims in regal comfort.

Kim the First exploited tensions between China and the Soviets; Kim the Second oversaw the development of nuclear weapons—permitted to do so because firm action to prevent it would have involved high risks of war between the U.S., China, or Russia. Kim the Third, well aware of what the real game is, is now making his own contribution by exploding what may or may not have been an H-bomb.

The Three Kims are a fascinating phenomenon: how to exploit the tension between great powers by playing a game of nuclear arms. Such tensions, evidently, are built into collective human experience and cannot be put to rest no matter how the world changes. The situation now is vastly different than it was in 1948, but the Korean situation is unchanged. Global conflict, to be sure, is also in the genes, albeit in the collective genes. The last thing the Kims will ever do is use their weapons in warfare. Why do I say that? If they ever did, the Game of Kims would abruptly end. In the meanwhile, China might be persuaded to act more energetically by being granted certain title to the islands it is building in the South China Sea. But that could not be done without transforming the uneasy balance in Asia. Meanwhile the Jong-un is still young. He already has a daughter. Will a Kim the Fourth be soon waiting in the wings for yet another round of this game?

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Miniaturization of Flight

I learned today that around a million “drones” were packaged for this Christmas this year; indeed I saw a kiosk at a nearby mall busily demonstrating and selling them—the devices swirling around in the air. They came in two varieties: those with and those without a camera.

Miniaturization is probably part of all evolving technology, biological or mechanical. The most memorable for me are clocks: huge things that once needed tall towers—and brass bells to broadcast the time to those who couldn’t see the towers—or by night. Now watches are easily worn on the wrist. The radio figures in my memories too. The first one I saw as a child at grandmother’s house had a vast, black horn. Radios were big—pieces of furniture. One such—too nice to discard—still lives in our garage, and has so lived, protected by wrapping, for thirty years. Now radios have become small enough to fit into an ear.

TVs, computers, telephones. The list of objects miniaturized is quite long but, deep down, associated with humanity’s growing skill in making transistors ever smaller. Transistors are the fundamental amplifying and switching devices of electronics—and therefore central in communications and computation. The illustration included (from Wikipedia here), shows the diminution of the size in these devices. The last of these, a so-called small-outline transistor, has a an internal diameter ranging from 1.9 to 0.5 millimeters.  

When you think about it, the miniaturization of flight has taken rather a long time. It has required development of real-time radio guidance so that the “pilot” can constantly pinpoint the object’s location—and the locations of other objects in its immediate vicinity. Those problems have now been solved—although I wonder what millions upon millions of such devices—each using the limited wireless spectrum—will have on other forms of communication.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. For about $150 (that’s a little drone with a camera), our eyes can already take a ride although the beggar is still slouched on a sunny veranda.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

One Tale Told, Retold

In 1977 we were in transition between Virginia and Minnesota. I was already in Minneapolis; the family was still in Fairfax, VA when Star Wars made its debut in March of that year. I went to see it at a drive-in movie on an impulse: an advertising placard caught my eye as I was driving to my temporary apartment. The film made a great impression on me—not its science fiction aspects, which were quite stunning, of course, but rather something that was altogether novel in the environment of that time. The film deliberately presented to our popular culture the transcendental aspect of reality, and did so in a straightforward, serious, and approving manner. It was the Force—which was with you.

I did not know then what has taken place since. The story has been retold seven times since then—with essentially the same plot and by archetypal character: Good versus evil, and the Good triumphant by the slenderest of margins.

In the transition between 2015 and 2016, another show, Downton Abbey, is beginning its last season on this side of the divide. It is another case of one tale, retold each season. Such a feat is possible if one’s drawn to the story by the characters; Downton’s characters have much more human depth than Star Wars’, to be sure, but the repeating plot, with endless variations, is once more a kind of departure from our flagging faith in Progress and return to eternal values. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We haven’t seen Season VI of Downton Abbey, but we’re fairly sure that its story line will faithfully echo all earlier seasons: same conflicts, same resolutions. One watches such shows not for the predictable plot but just to see how life unfolds, infinitely variably but ever the same.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Through Nature's Eyes

Green grass shows through half-hearted snow.
The sky is uniformly grey.
The evergreens are tall and dark.
The other trees are stark and bare.
A few new flakes began to fall,
Slightly angled in descent,
A while ago, as I looked out
Struck by silence and by the same,
The same old face of Nature,
Always there, moving or still,
Ever-changing yet stubbornly
Still the same, standing, lying down—
Like that grass under its frowning snow.
Now new snow is falling thicker.
A small gust sweeps a curl of it
Right off the roof. The house
Back there is still asleep,
Its windows dark, the blue tarp
Covering a boat still dully blue.
It’s January 1st out there,
A new beginning—but Nature’s
Eyes see just another day.