Thursday, October 31, 2019

Good-Bye Old O

Through a glass dabble-blurred by raindrops and the faint presence of the summer screen I see the vague dark roof randomly decorated by wet yellow leaves from a combination of maple and linden. Very distantly it seems a tall dark green mass is the top region of a wide pine or fir; it never sheds. Very far away behind it trees light green and yellow brown stand in line like words that run together; the telephone pole in that direction is a very tall comma or perhaps a dash. Days on end with rain we cannot see but feel when outside even before the first drops touch our face. Halloween is here to put an end to a short October in which, it seems, the highlight came last night in Houston where Our team (we lived there once) (and yes, the oldest, as we are) won the World Series away from home. For some reason the word cilantro wants to be written. My mind wants to spell it with an S and the Internet tells me that it is coriander; confusing in a way. But it’s not even nine o’clock yet I’m already closing on October by wishing for a heat wave in November. With Global Warming here with us, anything is possible and in California already is.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

We May Have Been Immune

By a strange coincidence, Brigitte and I had a discussion yesterday morning about viruses. The context was reading the phrase “going viral” for the 50th time that  morning in the papers. Then, yesterday evening, we heard a new word on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Lawrence O’Donnell was interviewing Norman (“Norm”) Ornstein; Ornstein is a political scientist who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a conservative think tank.

Now the coincidence I started with is not at all obvious; but I discovered this morning that the word Ornstein was using, unknown to Brigitte and me, kakistocracy, had been virtually unknown until April 13, 2018. On that date, the former CIA director, John Brennan, had used it on twitter to describe Donald Trump’s administration: “Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey.” You know what comes next already. The word went viral!

Yes, it went viral. But to our great surprise in this humble household, it took 556 days to reach us. Thus something is wrong with us—or else we were immune to viruses. Another way to say that is to use another old-fashioned phrase: we must sit “below the salt” (link). Otherwise we would have been using the word by at least by April 15, 2018. But no. We’ve only heard it yesterday. Shame.

The Internet gave us choices when we tried a search: cacistocracy or kakistocracy. We were betting on the K; the start of the word sounds Greek. Yes, so it turned out. The Greek for “worst” is kakistos. And if children are listening, I must tell them that, yes, it derives from kakos, meaning bad, and may be related to kakka, “to defecate.” Anyway, kakistocracy means the worst government one can imagine.

Finally, what took us 556 years to learn took modern humanity 375 years to remember. (Trump would claim that he is the Greatest Word Associationist who’s ever lived.) The first usage of the word (link) has been traced back to a sermon given in 1644 during the Civil War—no, not ours!  —the English Civil War.

Now if you are sitting even lower at the table than we are, thus even further below the salt, then even you will now know what hides there in that potty.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October Horse and Other Miscellany

I missed the feast of October Horse (Equus October in Latin), anciently held on the 15th of the month. I did so for a perfectly logical reason. I’d never even heard of this celebration! How could I observe it? It belongs to the oldest Graeco-Roman times; indeed, the Greek historian Timaeus (345 BC – c. 250 BC) was the first to mention it—and he got his explanation wrong. Timaeus lived in BC times; hence October Horse belongs to the very deep past.

To understand this festival (categorized as religious but more likely a vulgar entertainment), it might help to put it into modern dress. Imagine that every October 15 a massive auto race were held. No limits would be placed on the size and power of the engines used, hence some really fast and weird cars would race with predictably many hair-raising accidents along the way. At the end of the race, the fastest and therefore the winning car would be displayed with masses of spectators present. Then men with powerful hammers and saws would attack it. They’d cut into its engine compartment and extract the engine any which way—and never mind if it was damaged. Others would attack its rear end and saw away its exhaust pipe.

Both teams, front and back, would then rush away in a fleet of trucks, each truck going in another direction. They would carry the engine and exhaust pipe, hiding each. Which trucks did these end up in? Nobody in the massive audience could know. The very expensive vehicle, the winner of the famous race, would, of course be left behind, an un-drivable wreck.

Our explanation is only half finished, at this point. In the real October Horse, the race was run by chariots drawn by horses, two to each chariot. The left-hand horse of the winning chariot would be sacrificed, i.e., killed by a spear. Then its head would be cut off—and also its rump with the tail. These would be carefully hidden someplace in the city.

But let’s go on. The contributions of the spectators now began. They were divided into two groups. The first were drawn from inhabitants of a huge neighborhood in Rome, Subura. Subura was a slum, in a way, inhabited by the poor, miserable: red light districts, and so on. The other group was drawn from a wealthy neighborhood in Rome’s best area, the Via Sacra. Off these people raced, running in masses. Their job was to find the Head (engine) and Tail (exhaust pipe) of the Horse (car). If these groups clashed along the way and fell into violent battles, why that was just part and parcel of Equus October. Those who found the Head displayed it for the next year; those who found the Tail, likewise. If one group found both—why the next year would be glorious—until October Horse returned again on the ides of October. Image source.

Now did I get this all correctly? Of course not. Even Timaeus had failed. But I can add what both of us now know. The festival was held on October 15 because it was the end both of military activities and of agricultural labors. So it was a festival of Mars, the god of war, and agriculture, the Sustainer of All.

It’s best to absorb even the few details I’ve managed to put forth. Destroying (i.e. sacrificing) a very expensive vehicle or horse—just for the hell of it? Letting the poor and the rich fight each other for ownership of the engine? Vast masses assembled to take part in the “fun”? October Horse was something even worse than we see all around us. But our festivals are on the social media. And the destruction is harder to see but much easier to cost out using Big Data and 5G.

Now for some miscellany. I discovered October Horse because I thought I’d find some festival in October beyond the well-known “celebrations”—like beer consumption at the October Fest or the children’s Halloween. My mind produced “The Rites of Spring” as an example, the ballet composition. I asked Google to display what it had stored under “The Rites of October.” In due course, I chanced across two entries on October Horse. Whaaat? October Horse? Discoveries then followed.

I also found an article titled “The October Horse.” That is the title of a novel by the Australian writer Colleen McCullough. Her novel is based in Rome. The sacrificial horse of her novel is Julius Caesar. Caesar was certainly, as a political figure, one of the best, brightest, and thus one of the swiftest. And at the beginning of his reign, if we may call it that, he was sacrificed by being stabbed with a knife. Et tu, Brute?

The image I show is Laocoon spearing the Trojan horse—an act from which Timaeus derived the October Horse festival. Both ancient and modern historians think he was wrong. And when you think of it, the horse shown is not exactly huge—or wooden. Never mind. The Trojan war has at least as many landmines as does Equus October.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Late Statue of Humanity

Let me start with the Statue of Humanity (source). I am able to capture its image as it existed in 2011, shortly before it was demolished. If the statue itself could be made to disappear, so might images of it if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, decides on erasing them.

The Statue stood outside of the Turkish city of Kars. The city is located near where the border between Turkey and Armenia runs, close enough so that, standing where once the Statue stood, one could see Armenia in the distance if powerful binoculars are handy. Why had this Statue been built? It had been intended to commemorate an uneasy peace formed between Turkey and Armenia in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916); in that genocide at least 600,000 Armenians were killed by Turkish troops in an action weirdly reminiscent of recent events on the border of Syria. Meaning: is a Kurdish Genocide now to be anticipated? The next question? Why had this Statue been taken down? Well, Erdogan, then still only a Prime Minister, had seen the Statue on one of his trips in 2011; he had expressed a strong dislike of it, calling it a freak. Despite local opposition, the City of Kars had then begun its disassembly, removing the heads first. So there is a link between the genocide, back when, and the possibility of another genocide, in the future. That link is Erdogan.

Finally, concerning the Statue, its designer was the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy (1939-); he got his commission in 2009; he was still laboring on the work in 2011 when the men with the crane and front-end loaders to take it down again arrived.

Not that there is a bigger picture than Humanity, but there is an historical big picture here, best represented by a map. The picture is that the collapse of great social structures, such as the Ottoman Empire, leaves behind troublesome echoes for years, sometimes even for centuries. The Ottomans ruled from Turkey. Under their governance, the many peoples they oversaw included the Armenians to the east. Armenia is a thinnish wedge of land between Turkey and Azerbaijan. And the part of Turkey that Armenia adjoins is what is still referred to, at least by Kurds, as Kurdistan. The map I show will reveal the situation (source).

The lightly-colored region is labeled Kurdish-inhabited. Thus the Kurds inhabit parts of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—going clockwise. The map also shows Armenia, of course. The Armenians irritated Turkey in the early 1900s by being friendly with Russia. Ah! There is Russia, too, in this great ethnic mix.

Problems, problems, problems. Back in the good-old days (but don’t look too closely), the Ottomans kept the peace all around inside their domain of rule. My late guru, the historian Arnold Toynbee, explained that situation by saying that the Ottomans regarded the peoples they ruled as species of stock—cattle, horses, sheep, and such. It was best to keep the various stocks from fighting and profit from their use or sale. But the Ottomans didn’t last. Nor, for that matter, to name another large domain, did the Soviets. Hence we now have “residual” problems in the Ukraine too. All kinds of problems. In human history, bigness usually spells peace; breakup causes chaos. Perhaps we should replace the Statue of Humanity by renaming the Gobi Desert The Pasture of Humanity. But is the Gobi big enough?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Color of October

Noticed, on waking, that the two calendars on the wall looked very similar through blurred eyes. They were both patches of yellow-orange. Later I went about the house and examined other calendars too. Most were obediently pumpkin-colored.

But while October might be pumpkin-colored, another and more subtle question is What’s the Color of a Pumpkin? The kindly loan of the pumpkin picture I am showing came from this source. The blog is called my little cottage in the making. The image I show is the first of many more in a blog post titled “The Many Colors of Pumpkins.” Incredible variety, nicely displayed. Nothing’s simple in this crazy age of ours—not even the color of a pumpkin.

We Don't Need a New Thermometer

This morning after waking up and having a sip of cold coffee, I checked NBC News, curious, don’t you know, if Europe is still there. The headline in text at the bottom of the screen said:

Politics is taking a toll on Americans’ health, according to a new study

The text was actually shorter, but what I’m quoting is an online article by NBC published September 25, 2019. That date is what “new” means in the headline. The NBC article is here. NBC itself was summarizing the content of an article that appeared in Plos One, a recently founded scholarly journal. The original article, titled “Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics,” is available here.

The essence of the content? The study is based on a survey of individuals reporting their own feelings. One in ten of those participating reported feeling badly about politics these days. From the Abstract:

Though anecdotal evidence suggests that the costs of politics may in fact extend beyond economics to frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems, no systematic evidence on these broader costs exists.

Thus the article thus is what you might imagine. Scientific up to a point, but mostly reporting on how people felt when asked about politics. One in ten is not a very high number. But the headline makes you think that things are in a pretty sorry state. “Even physical problems” were reported. We need a new thermometer now. On the other hand, I saw an ad the other day that showed a man giving himself an EKG by touching two tiny pads on a table with his left and right index fingers. The EKG results appeared on a cell-phone sized screen. So maybe we don’t need a new thermometer now. But we certainly need a new politics.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Snap Shot

From a living room window we see people walking their dogs every day, yes even in the rain. There are hardy types of owners who are not stopped by a little down-pour. But of them all, we know two very well.

One of them is Leo, the Shi Tzu in my picture. Leo lives next door with Pat and Lloyd. The other is Katie the Beagle, a personality who occurs multiple times on this blog. Katie lives across the street with Monique and John, who’re our family. This is Leo’s first appearance on Ghulf Genes.

Leo is quite young, energetic, and very territorial. It's quite possible to miss the genuine dog traits of a little dog with a name like Shi Tzu; but when you get to know them and watch them in action, you realize that the canine is as strongly present in these fur balls as it is in some giant labrador. I think of Katie, by contrast, as a great-grand-mother: she spent her early years in a breeding place; she's lived a "civilian" life now for many years and she is getting old; she's also suffering from chronic ailments. But a nice day will make her pull you on a leash so that you feel your own age. Can't walk that fast any more...

Thursday, October 3, 2019

A Picture of Eternity

Next to our coffee machine, in a kitchen corner, lies a tray we got along the way, no memory when and where. The corner is well lit by a strong bulb mounted under a kitchen cabinet; you see the light but not the lamp. The tray is more or less covered by objects, but in that light some surface of it is always brightly visible. It is one of the many images of the Moulin Rouge painted by Michel Delacroix (born 1933). I see it multiple times every day; and what with its undeniable qualities and charm, it feels like it is part of me.

Part of me and yet, curiously, a picture of eternity. It is always, predictably, reliably, and pleasingly the same. Its colors neither change nor fade. In a time in which seemingly nothing remains untouched by whatever you want to call it (I call it blight), it is a rock hard reminder that some things, even quite trivial things like a tray, are there to remind us of another reality which faith would have it (and faith these days is absolutely needed) stands in contrast to the blight and holds on firmly to hope (as a mother’s hand holds on to a child’s).

The subject is now uppermost in my mind for obvious reasons. Incidentally, we’re now also reviewing the BBC Sherlock Holms series; in a moving fashion it also serves the same role as the tray. I keep telling Brigitte, as we watch the repeating opening sequence with its horse-drawn carriages and men in fancy hats buying newspapers, “Images of my youth.” Well, of course, not quite. My stay here began a mere three years after Delacroix was born. But yes. Horse-drawn carriages. Yes. I might hear the sound of those hoofs as I opened my eyes in the morning. And once past, all is eternity: rock solid so that even a tray can hold it forever.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Odysseus the Little

Lovely sunny day. It follows a series of very rainy days and such adventures as a partially flooded basement, a battle with the sump pump, walking Katie the Beagle, and then toweling her down.

Today is different. The sump pump hums. The basement is dry. Katie went walking in sunlight. Incidentally, when women with children see me walking Katie, they say, “Look, look, honey. See? A puppy!” But this puppy is a great-grand-mother, almost blind, and suffering from a chronic lung condition. Alas. Katie went walking with Monique this morning and, again, looked like a puppy.

Inside the house I glanced at the aquarium where we are raising two Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Startled by something, I stopped dead. Can’t be! But it was. One of the pupae, by far the smaller of the two, had opened and released a Butterfly. Just last night I was sure that pupae was done for. Join me in saying Welcome—to Odysseus the Little shown here in two versions: in the shade and in the sun. The yellow coloration says male. Brigitte is into Greek names for butterflies, hence Odysseus. She shortens that to Ody. This little fellow had had a fight to be born.

Soon now Ody will take off. We’re guessing that it will be in a north-westerly direction. Always so—whether back east in Grosse Point or here in Wolverine. And Monarchs have the same sense of direction. They know something we do not.