Thursday, December 31, 2009

A plight unknown to the born reader

Edith Wharton. From The Vice of Reading.
It follows that he who reads by time often "has no time to read"; a plight unknown to the born reader, whose reading forms a continuous undercurrent to all his other occupations.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Edith Wharton - The Vice of Reading

An interesting take from Edith Wharton on The Vice of Reading.

This observation caught my eye.
What is reading, in the last analysis, but an interchange of thought between writer and reader? If the book enters the reader's mind just as it left the writer's -- without any of the additions and modifications inevitably produced by contact with a new body of thought -- it has been read to no purpose. In such cases, of course, the reader is not always to blame. There are books that are always the same -- incapable of modifying or of being modified -- but these do not count as factors in literature. The value of books is proportionate to what may be called their plasticity -- their quality of being all things to all men, of being diversely moulded by the impact of fresh forms of thought. Where, from one cause or the other, this reciprocal adaptability is lacking, there can be no real intercourse between book and reader. In this sense it may be said that there is no abstract standard of values in literature: the greatest books ever written are worth to each reader only what he can get out of them. The best books are those from which the best readers have been able to extract the greatest amount of thought of the highest quality; but it is generally from these books that the poor reader gets least.

There's the rub of it; "The value of books is proportionate to what may be called their plasticity -- their quality of being all things to all men, of being diversely moulded by the impact of fresh forms of thought". Just how is that plasticity conjured such that some certain books are read with constantly renewed delight two, three, six generations after they were written.

Montaigne on religious conviction

Montaigne, The Complete Works:
It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A vegetarian butcher, eh? Well, it's an interesting business model for a challenging time.

From an article (Wurst Case Scenario by Andrew D. Blechman in the January 2010 edition of The Smithsonian Magazine)
I had spoken by phone with Gero two weeks earlier, trying to put Axel's struggle and the rapid decline of Germany's most iconic profession into context. "A vegetarian butcher, eh?" Gero had said. "Well, it’s an interesting business model for a challenging time. Most butchers are branching out into catering, cafes or organic products - so-called 'green meat.' Everyone must specialize if they want to survive. I guess selling vegetables is one way to do that. We could all use more balance in our diet, and I know plenty of overweight butchers who might benefit from eating more vegetables. But I have a feeling it means we've lost yet another butcher."

Memeology?

Is there a word for the history and application of ideas and concepts. Something akin to industrial archaeology which looks at the history and application of technology? Perhaps memeology? Why do some ideas take off in one environment or time and not in others? Why did the New World civilizations have the idea of the wheel (as evidenced by wheeled toys for children) but never used it for transportation as far as we can tell? Why did the Chinese develop the capability of steel production for a couple of hundred years and then abandon it to the point of total amnesia.

All this is brought to mind by an article (Blissful Oblivion by Stephaine Pain in New Scientist, March 7th, 2009) which examines the catalytic influence of Western medical technology upon Japanese practitioners between the 18th and 19th centuries and particularly with regard to the parallel development of anaesthetics in isolation of one another. A fascinating little story.

Monday, December 28, 2009

He has found something to make him laugh, and he will not suffer it to make him think.

From G.K. Chesterton's What I Saw in America. That is the problem with finding books on-line. Yes you can read them electronically, but if you are like me, you can only really consume them when they are a book in hand. One to be held, reflected upon, set aside, gone back to. This appears to be an excellent discourse, using travel to expand on philosophy and vice versa and delivered in engaging, witty prose.
I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labour and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger--the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travellers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious ideas of international instruction. It was said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray, but rather to excommunicate. Hence in international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences. To hint at some such better way is the only excuse of this book.

Let me begin my American impressions with two impressions I had before I went to America. One was an incident and the other an idea; and when taken together they illustrate the attitude I mean. The first principle is that nobody should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it is foreign; the second is that he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong because it is funny. The reaction of his senses and superficial habits of mind against something new, and to him abnormal, is a perfectly healthy reaction. But the mind which imagines that mere unfamiliarity can possibly prove anything about inferiority is a very inadequate mind. It is inadequate even in criticising things that may really be inferior to the things involved here. It is far better to laugh at a negro for having a black face than to sneer at him for having a sloping skull. It is proportionally even more preferable to laugh rather than judge in dealing with highly civilised peoples. Therefore I put at the beginning two working examples of what I felt about America before I saw it; the sort of thing that a man has a right to enjoy as a joke, and the sort of thing he has a duty to understand and respect, because it is the explanation of the joke.

When I went to the American consulate to regularise my passports, I was capable of expecting the American consulate to be American. Embassies and consulates are by tradition like islands of the soil for which they stand; and I have often found the tradition corresponding to a truth. I have seen the unmistakable French official living on omelettes and a little wine and serving his sacred abstractions under the last palm-trees fringing a desert. In the heat and noise of quarrelling Turks and Egyptians, I have come suddenly, as with the cool shock of his own shower-bath, on the listless amiability of the English gentleman. The officials I interviewed were very American, especially in being very polite; for whatever may have been the mood or meaning of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have always found Americans by far the politest people in the world. They put in my hands a form to be filled up, to all appearance like other forms I had filled up in other passport offices. But in reality it was very different from any form I had ever filled up in my life. At least it was a little like a freer form of the game called 'Confessions' which my friends and I invented in our youth; an examination paper containing questions like, 'If you saw a rhinoceros in the front garden, what would you do?' One of my friends, I remember, wrote, 'Take the pledge.' But that is another story, and might bring Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson on the scene before his time.

One of the questions on the paper was, 'Are you an anarchist?' To which a detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, 'What the devil has that to do with you? Are you an atheist?' along with some playful efforts to cross-examine the official about what constitutes an [Greek: arche]. Then there was the question, 'Are you in favour of subverting the government of the United States by force?' Against this I should write, 'I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.' The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down, 'Are you a polygamist?' The answer to this is, 'No such luck' or 'Not such a fool,' according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated the rhetorical question, 'Shall I slay my brother Boer?'--the answer that ran, 'Never interfere in family matters.' But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, 'I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.' Or, 'I intend to subvert by force the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into Mr. Harding at the earliest opportunity.' Or again, 'Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.' There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.

Now that is a model of the sort of foreign practice, founded on foreign problems, at which a man's first impulse is naturally to laugh. Nor have I any intention of apologising for my laughter. A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that they must be inferior to himself.

Define: Polysororal

Polysororal. Came across in an article (Findings, Harper's Magazine, March 2009)
The eldest sisters in polysororal families tend to lose their virginity later. Female worker ants who attempt to reproduce via parthenogenesis in the presence of the queen will be attacked by their peers.

I can't find anyone online that defines polysoral but Merriam-Webster offers sororal. Polysororal would, by logic, then be a family with multiple female siblings.

Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: so·ro·ral
Pronunciation: \sə-ˈrȯr-əl\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin soror sister — more at sister
Date: 1858

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Gossamer strands: Dietrich and Kipling?

Kipling's 'If' poem shows up in the oddest places. I would suspect it is one of those poems whose popular currency vastly exceeds its critical respect. I came across this interesting tidbit from Ted Malone's Pack Up Your Troubles (1942).
"It was the winter of 1918 in Berlin," Miss Dietrich wrote, "and my coming upon 'If' then gave me a philosophy and comfort which helped during the most trying days of my life."

She recalled it was the time of Germany's realization and shock that it had lost the World War; food was acutely scarce; the country had been starved insensible, except to the rigors of one of the worst winters northern Europe had experienced in years.

Further, only a few weeks before, the girl had learned of her father's death in fierce action on the Russian front. She had no brothers or sisters. She and her mother, quite penniless, were trying to find a new footing in revolution-crazed, famine-ridden Berlin.

"One morning, on my way to the food depot where we stood in line for milk and bread, I had to pass a baker's shop. Rioters had broken in the night before. Glass was all over the roped-off sidewalk. Such sights were common in Berlin, but as I stopped to look I saw a little framed picture in the rubbish which had spilled outside. It was a poem, and I could clearly read only the first line: 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. . . . '

"A year or so later I managed to get a copy of the complete poem. I have always treasured it. I must have six or seven embossed copies of the work at home, presented by friends who knew I liked it. 'If' helped me through the most critical period of my life. Once a great source of encouragement, it is still that and, in addition, a nostalgic pleasure."

If . . .

If
by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream-and not make dreams your master;
If you can think-and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And-which is more-you'll be a Man, my son!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Good King Wenceslas

The Feast of Stephen is the second day of Christmas, December 26th, also known as Boxing Day in England. Further background to the story and the hymn is here.
Good King Wenceslas
by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

Hither page and stand by me if thou knowst it telling
Yonder peasant, who is he, where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain.

Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pinelogs hither
Thou and I will see him dine when we bear them thither
Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together
Through the rude winds wild lament, and the bitter weather.

Sire the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart I know now how, I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps my good page, tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly.

In his master's steps he trod where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed
Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Hat Tip to Taki, an essayist in The Spectator magazine of the UK. He mentioned sometime in the past year, the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving. Investigating, I find that it is a collection of Irving's short stories and essays including those two for which he is most famous, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There are also four stories touching on Christmas: Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning and The Christmas Dinner. Interesting observations and a capturing of Christmas in a different time and place but which, in some ways, is very contemporary. From Christmas:
Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the Church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.

It is a beautiful arrangement, also, derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementos of childhood.

There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas. At other times we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we "live abroad and everywhere." The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn, earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with it deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, -- all fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasure of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart, and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of loving-kindness which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms, and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.

Christmas by John Betjeman

John Betjeman, Collected Poems.
Christmas
by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Kural

Kural is a form of very structured and abbreviated poems in the Tamil language. They hold a position not dissimilar to haiku in Japanese. I am reading the Penguin edition, The Kural by Tiruvalluvar writing sometime between 200BC and 800AD. It reminds me a little of Aldous Huxley and his Perennial Philosophy in that there are so many parallels between The Kural and adages from Aesop, from Mother Goose, Confucious, etc. It is in some ways remarkable how much residual wisdom lies embedded in these ancient texts.
Learn well what should be learnt, and then
Live your learning.

A man's conduct is the touchstone
Of his greatness and littleness.

Good friends are like good books -
A perpetual delight.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"A self-made widow."

Having scratched the surface of O. Henry again after all these years (see Post), I was reading Henry's short story, The World and the Door and came across this aside:
Dear me! in such scenes how the talk runs into artificial prose. But it can't be helped. It's the subconscious smell of the footlights' smoke that's in all of us. Stir the depths of your cook's soul sufficiently and she will discourse in Bulwer-Lyttonese.

They are gossamer strands that link author to author and author to reader across the span of time; from Richard Henry Dana to Edward Bulwer-Lytton to O. Henry to now.

As with all Henry's stories there are little gems scattered about.
"I suppose so," she said, in low and oddly uneven tones; "but that depends upon you. I'll be as honest as you were. I poisoned my husband. I am a self-made widow.

A little bit of science and reading

This article, (Brain Power by Benedict Carey in the New York Times, December 20th, 2009), argues that there is progress in establishing some scientific underpinning to teaching of young children based on an increased understanding of children's neurological development. While the bulk of the article focuses on numeracy, there are a couple of allusions to literacy.

Towards the end, they reference the fact that "scientists found that the brain’s ability to link letter combinations with sounds may not be fully developed until age 11 — much later than many have assumed." This would fit with the otherwise seemingly anomalous circumstance that reading instruction in Finland does not begin until children are seven or so (much later than in most countries) and yet their children consistently rate among the highest performers in terms of reading scores.

Monday, December 21, 2009

From How to Deconstruct Almost Anything

From How to Deconstruct Almost Anything--My Postmodern Adventure by Chip Morningstar. While written nominally as a tongue-in-cheek humorous critique it is actually a very substantive discussion with solid conclusions but delivered with respectful wit. Well worth reading.
So, what are we to make of all this? I earlier stated that my quest was to learn if there was any content to this stuff and if it was or was not bogus. Well, my assessment is that there is indeed some content, much of it interesting. The question of bogosity, however, is a little more difficult. It is clear that the forms used by academicians writing in this area go right off the bogosity scale, pegging my bogometer until it breaks. The quality of the actual analysis of various literary works varies tremendously and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as to its validity.

Related to The Authority of a Book. Also relevant to Steven Den Beste's discussion of materialism versus teleology in Government by Wishful Thinking.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Aladdin's Bibliocave

What a treasure. Entrepreneur Jay Walker's personal library. From Wired Magazine's September 22, 2008 edition in an article by Steven Levy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Most Failed State

An interesting article, bringing up to date the status of tragic Somalia. The Most Failed State by Jon Lee Anderson in the December 14th, 2009 edition of the New Yorker. It contains this short passage which highlights the many small mis-steps when communicating across cultures and belief systems.

Sharif said that the international figure he most admired was Nelson Mandela. I remarked that to many people Mandela was a kind of living saint. Sharif looked perplexed. After a back-and-forth with his friend, he said, "The thing is that in Islam we have no saints like that. Just martyrs. But I understand what you mean."

The authority of a book

Every reader has that moment. Books are a whole world of themselves and in which you have invested imaginative conviction. "I read it in . . . " is the clinching argument among your peers. And then one day you come across something in a book, an erroneous fact, a blatant opinon presented as fact, an interpretation in severe contradiction with your own experience, something just not right. From that moment on, your relationship with books is not quite the same. Not necessarily less, just different. One more step on the path of critical thinking.

Prompted by J. Storrs Hall first couple of paragraphs in an otherwise interesting article on climate change, Some Historical Perspective.

Friday, December 18, 2009

READING DOES NOT CAUSE MYOPIA!

For anyone that is both near-sighted and an enthusiastic reader, you cannot have escaped the assumption, made personally or by those around you that heavy reading causes near sightedness. There is an excellent article in the November 7, 2009 edition of New Scientist, Generation Specs by Nora Schultz, which provides an excellent summary of the state of research on myopia. The good news for parents trying to raise readers but concerned about myopia is that reading does not cause myopia: that is an old wives tale.

Despite the many decades-long interest of individuals and governments in figuring why some countries have high incidences of myopia and others low, there has been surprisingly little progress. Recent years have seen more and more light shed on the issue though, and the article is a fascinating tale of the scientific method and eventual progress.

History Disjointed continued

And as if to reinforce the earlier post, I come across this two part article in The Spectator (starting November 7th, 2009, Reaching Through the Iron Curtain by Pavel Stroliov). The accusation and evidence are not quite as dramatic as the article makes it out to be. None-the-less, in the seventies and eighties, most observers that attempted to make out that there was ideological sympathy between western labor and socialist political parties and the Soviet Union and that there was likely to be some level of privileged communication and coordination of policies/actions would have been traduced as a troglodyte unable to understand the differences between these parties.

Yet here we are with archival materials indicating that indeed there were such levels of communication and coordination. So who were the ideological buffoons and who were the poltroons?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

First there's the children's house of make-believe

Directive
Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry -
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

None of the Above

A fascinating book review by Malcolm Gladwell in the September 17th, 2007 edition of the New Yorker, None of the Above, of James Flynn's book What is Intelligence?

The article explores the nuances of intelligence, race, social expectations, the malleability of the brain, etc. It's approach and explication of the issues is not dissimilar to Stephen Jay Gould's very excellent Mismeasure of Man.

The conclusions that Gladwell reaches and the observations Flynn makes are congruent with our underlying argument in Growing a Reading Culture, which is that life outcomes are much more driven by values and behaviors rather than inherent IQ differentials existing between individuals or putatively between races.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

History disjointed

I don't know if you have ever had this experience. You are at a party in an interesting conversation with a couple of people. You are interrupted to be introduced to somebody and it is a few minutes before you are able to return to the interesting conversation. When you do return, they are talking about the same subject but they are at a completely different point than you would expect. You missed something big. Sometime while you were gone the conversation took a significant turn and you don't know what it was or how it happened.

Growing up and being educated in the early seventies through the early eighties, it seemed that the established party line on spying in the Americas by the Soviet Union was that it did happen but that conservatives in the US grossly exaggerated its extent and that many people such as the Rosenbergs and Hiss were unjustly accused and railroaded. Joseph McCarthy was clearly a hot-headed, mean-spirited, malevolent character and Whittaker Chambers a spineless liar. As a young person, it was my impression that there were several miscarriages of justice and that to some extent it was much ado about nothing.

I couldn't now tell you which particular history books gave me that impression but I am sure it was pretty much your run of the mill textbooks along with what I would term the mainstream media which were my normal sources of general news; The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, US News & World Report, The Herald Tribune.

As a reader, I am not particularly drawn to the field of spy-stories and as interested as I am in history, I can't say that I have ever particularly paid a lot of attention to the long tangled tale of Soviet spying in the US.

In the past couple of years, though, and not unlike returning to a conversation that has taken a different turn than expected, I have read a number of accounts and book reviews (many based on post-perestroika and glasnost documents from the former Soviet Union) that seem to indicate that in fact most of those that were held to be unjustly charged, the Rosenbergs, Hiss, etc. were in fact exactly guilty as accused. I have seen numbers indicating that the Soviet Union had some hundreds of US citizens divulging information in some capacity or another at different points in time to the Soviet Union.

I am sure there were many instances of false accusations. Joseph McCarthy still seems an entirely unpleasant and unreliable character. At some point, though, it seems as if the balance has shifted and that perhaps, there was more to the story than was acknowledged at the time and that, almost reluctantly, we have had to acknowledge there was merit to many of the accusations. It feels as if the argument has moved from denying that there was extensive spying to arguing that the American spys were not very effective.

This would seem to be a fairly momentous shift but I don't seem to have seen anyone actually pick up the point and acknowledge it. Am I off base? Was I misreading the consensus then? Am I misreading the judment now? All of this is of course, and unfortunately, caught up with the heated rhetoric of culture wars, left versus right, etc. but it would be nice if there were a single, reasonably objective single book out there to which one could turn for a balanced view of the state-of-play then and now. Any ideas?

Worth While

Worth While
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life flows by like a song,
But the man worth while is the one who will smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
For the test of the heart is trouble,
And it always comes with the years,
And the smile that is worth the praises of earth
Is the smile that shines through tears.

It is easy enough to be prudent
When nothing tempts you to stray,
When without or within no voice of sin
Is luring your soul away;
But it's only a negative virtue
Until it is tried by fire,
And the life that is worth the honour on earth
Is the one that resists desire.

By the cynic, the sad, the fallen,
Who had no strength for the strife,
The world's highway is cumbered to-day-
They make up the sum of life;
But the virtue that conquers passion,
And the sorrow that hides in a smile-
It is these that are worth the homage on earth,
For we find them but once in a while.

Viewed from a different angle

There is a brief article in the July 19, 2009 edition of New Scientist, 'Honest Joes' and cheaters unmasked in brain scans.

The first sentence identifies the finding.
Honest people don't have to work at not cheating. They're not even tempted.

The second sentence then identifies how the finding might be used.
That's the conclusion of the first-ever neurobiological study of honesty and cheating, which could someday help develop brain-based tests of truthfulness.

What they do not discuss, and which I think is far more fascinating, is: why do some people never even consider cheating while others appear to reserve it as an option to consider when presented with the opportunity.

There is nothing in the article to indicate it, but I would speculate that this is a product of upbringing; home-training. For some, honesty is a bed-rock behavior. For others, cheating is viewed as a legitimate tactic given the circumstances and objective. It sure would be interesting to understand what is behind these two choices and how individuals arrive at a point where they each unconciously pursue one path or the other.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Interesting

Regrettably, I fell from a tree trunk while crossing a stream on Friday and dislocated my knee. As a consequence, I am immobilized in bed for the next few days. The silver lining is that it gives me the opportunity to catch up on magazine reading from the past few months.

In the July 10, 2009 edition of New Scientist, there is an article, Genes drive IQ more as kids get older by Andy Coghlan. The report is interesting and based on a fairly robust methodology and large numbers of participants but as with anything, it needs to be seen how it weathers.
"People assume the genetic influence goes down with age because the environmental differences between people pile up in life," says Robert Plomin of King's College London. "What we found was quite amazing, and goes in the other direction."

The article is truncated and there is not, that I can found, a full text version available. The original report is abstracted here. However the main point is captured in the accompanying graph.

New%20Scientist.jpg

In our Growing a Reading Culture methodology for increasing the probability that a child will become an enthusiastic and habitual reader, we point out that it can be applied at any point in time but that it has the greatest impact when used from the youngest ages. This article reinforces the importance of establishing the culture and habits of reading in the earliest years, when parents have the greatest opportunity for shaping long term outcomes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Ransom of Red Chief

Years ago, attending university in Washington, D.C. I discovered a wonderful used book store run by the Salvation Army. I would every couple of weeks or so make my way down there to see what new unexpected delights had made their way in to that jumble. The attractions were two fold. Their pricing was just right for a student's budget - 50 cents for a paperback and a dollar for hardbacks. Exceptionally fine hardbacks might occassionally be priced up to something as high as $5 but that was rare. This pricing scheme in combination with the fact that Washington is a highly transient city with large numbers of well educated readers moving in and out all the time, meant that there was a lot to choose from and much that could be afforded.

You never knew what you might find. Signed editions from prominent politicians and other cultural leaders were more available in a used book store there than anywhwere else I have come across. A little bit of a bibliophile's heaven on earth.

One treasure which I came across one day, and which ultimately made it into my possession was a dated but tidy collection of the complete works of O.Henry. Hard bound books in red cloth, they lined up maybe ten or twenty in the set. Asking price? $10.

I had read a few of his short stories in English survey courses and had enjoyed them. I met this collection one week and salivated over them. But $10 on a student's purse? Besides, I was constrained by the usual dilemma of a book lover - where will I put them? I left them that first time. A couple of weeks later, they were sitll there, still deserving of a home. But still I broke free. They came home with me after the third trip to the store a month or so later. It wasn't right that they should be so abandoned there.

I sampled several stories from the collection, put them to the side, later graduated, moved, moved again, etc. Some decades later they still sit in a box in a storage unit, waiting for me to finally build that mountain house that will have a whole wing that is a library where all the books of my life will finally be free to stand together along yards and yards of shelves.

All this was brought to mind by a passing reference somewhere to Henry's short story, The Ransom of Red Chief. Well worth a read and a laugh here at Gutenberg or in this collection, Selected Stories.
I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down again. But,
from that moment, Bill's spirit was broken. He laid down on his side
of the bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that
boy was with us. I dozed off for a while, but along toward sun-up I
remembered that Red Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake
at the rising of the sun. I wasn't nervous or afraid; but I sat up
and lit my pipe and leaned against a rock.

"What you getting up so soon for, Sam?" asked Bill.

"Me?" says I. "Oh, I got a kind of a pain in my shoulder. I thought
sitting up would rest it."

"You're a liar!" says Bill. "You're afraid. You was to be burned at
sunrise, and you was afraid he'd do it. And he would, too, if he
could find a match. Ain't it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will pay
out money to get a little imp like that back home?"

Presumably The Ransom of Red Chief was some part of the inspiration for Danny DeVito/Bette Midler's movie (funny but not for young ones) Ruthless People.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An engineer's brush with the humanities

From Chip Morningstar's How to Deconstruct Almost Anything - My Postmodern Adventure.
My last serious brush with the humanities in an academic context had been in college, ten years earlier. The humanities appear to have experienced a considerable amount of evolution (or perhaps more accurately, genetic drift) since then.

This not too far from William Chace's lament about The Decline of the English Department.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Be still my heart!

From Curious Expeditions, (H/T Instapundit), a tour of the world's most beautiful libraries. What is it that Raymond Chandler said? "It was a blond. A blond to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." And so with these libraries.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Will

Will
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

You will be what you will to be;
Let failure find its false content
In that poor word "environment,"
But spirit scorns it, and is free.


It masters time, it conquers space,
It cows that boastful trickster Chance,
And bids the tyrant Circumstance
Uncrown and fill a servant's place.

The human Will, that force unseen,
The offspring of a deathless Soul,
Can hew the way to any goal,
Though walls of granite intervene.

Be not impatient in delay,
But wait as one who understands
When spirit rises and commands,
The gods are ready to obey.

The river seeking for the sea
Confronts the dam and precipice,
Yet knows it cannot fail or miss
You will be what you will to be!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Idealists, realists, and politicians.

From G.K. Chesterton's The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond.
For the true idealist and the real realist have at least the love of action in common. And the practical politician thrives by offering practical objection to any action. What the idealist does may be unworkable and what the man of action does may be unscrupulous; but in neither trade can a man win a reputation by doing nothing.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Immigration, language and adopted words

The Eric Andersen song, The Eyes of the Immigrant, reminded me of these passages from Bill Bryson's Made in America. While the book is "an informal history of the English language in America", it is really a quite fascinating history of the country. Bryson, always a careful researcher, makes language and history come alive in a fashion not often experienced in other books.
By the early 1830s, America's cotton trade with Britain had become so vast that up to a thousand ships at a time, a significant portion of the Atlantic fleet, were engaged in carrying cotton to Liverpool. The problem was that most made the return journey largely empty. Casting around for a convenient cargo for the return trip, the shipowners hit on an unusual one: people.

Never mind that their ships were never intended for passengers, that a crossing could take up to three months with the human freight crowded into fetid holds that were breeding grounds for diseases like trachoma and malignant typhus (which in the nineteenth century was so closely associated with Atlantic crossings that it was called ship fever). People were willing to endure almost any hardship to get to America if the price was right, and by packing the passengers in and giving them almost nothing in the way of civilizing comforts, the fares could be made not just low but effectively irresistible. By mid-century a one-way ticket in steerage (so called because it was near the ship's steering mechanism and thus noisy) could be had for as little $12 from Liverpool to New York, and for less than $10 from Dublin. All but the most miserably destitute could scrape together that.

Millions did. From 150,000 in the 1820s, the number of immigrants to America climbed steadily with each successive decade: 600,000 in the 1830s, 1.7 million in the 1840s, 2.3 million in the 1850s. All this was happening in a much more thinly populated America, of course. The three million immigrants who came to the United States in the decade 1845 - 1855 arrived in a country that had a population of only twenty million. In just twenty years, 1830 - 1850, the proportion of foreign- born immigrants in America rose from one in a hundred to one in ten.

Never before had there been such a global exodus - and not just to the United States, but to Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, anywhere that showed promise, though the United States took by far the largest share. Between 1815 and 1915, it took in 35 million people, equivalent to the modern populations of Norway, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, and Switzerland. Seven million came from Germany, roughly five million each from Italy and Ireland (1.5 million more than live in Ireland today), 3.3 million from Russia, 2.5 million from Scandinavia, and hundreds of thousands from Greece, Portugal, Turkey, the Netherlands, Mexico, the Caribbean, China, and Japan. Even Canada provided a quarter of a million immigrants between 1815 and 1860, and nearly a million more in the I 920s. For smaller countries like Sweden, Norway, and Ireland, and for regions within countries, like Sicily and the Mezzogiorno in Italy, the numbers represented a significant drain on human resources. This was especially true of Ireland. In 1807 it was the most densely populated country in Europe; by the 1860s it was one of the least.

Once across the ocean the immigrants tended to congregate in enclaves. Almost all the migrants from Norway between 1815 and 1860 settled in just four states, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and illinois. In much the same way, two-thirds of the Dutch were to be found in Michigan, New York, and Iowa. Sometimes they were given active encouragement to congregate. In the first half of the nineteenth century, several German societies were formed with the express intention of so concentrating immigration in particular areas that they could, in effect, take over. One German spoke for many when he dreamed of Pennsylvania becoming "an entirely German state where . . . the beautiful German language would be used in the legislative halls and the courts ofjustice." Not just in Pennsylvania, but in Texas, Missouri, and Wisconsin there were earnest hopes of colonizing all or at least a significant part of those states.

In factory towns, too, immigrant groups were often concentrated to an extraordinary degree. In 1910, Hungry Hollow, Illinois, a steel town, was home to 15,000 Bulgarians. At the same time, of the 14,300 people employed in Carnegie steel mills in western Pennsylvania, almost 12,000 were from eastern Europe.

The bulk of immigrants settled in cities even when their backgrounds were agricultural, as was generally the case. So effortlessly did Irish, Poles, and Italians settle into urban life, we easily forget that most came from rural stock and had perhaps never seen a five-story building or a crowd of a thousand people before leaving home. Often they arrived in such numbers as to overturn the prevailing demographics. In a single year, 1851, a quarter of a million Irish came to America, and almost all of them settled in New York or Boston. By 1855, one-third of New York's population was Irish-born. As immigration from northern Europe eased in the third quarter of the century, the slack was taken up by eastern European Jews. Between 1880 and 1900 an estimated one-third of the Jewish population of Europe came to America, and again settled almost exclusively in New York.

By the turn of the century, New York had become easily the most cosmopolitan city the world had ever seen. Eighty percent of its five million inhabitants were either foreign-born or the children of immigrants. It had more Italians than the combined populations of Florence, Genoa, and Venice, more Irish than anywhere but Dublin, more Russians than Kiev. As Herman Melville put it: "We are not so much a nation as a world." In 1908, a British Zionist named Israel Zangwill wrote a play about the immigration experience that gave Americans a term for the phenomenon. He called it The Melting-Pot.

The popular image, recreated in countless movies and books from The Godfather to Kane and Able, is of an immigrant arriving wide-eyed and bewildered at Ellis Island, being herded into a gloomy hail and subjected to an intimidating battery of medical tests and interviews, being issued a mysterious new name by a gruff and distracted immigration official, and finally stepping into the sunshine to realize that he has made it to the New World. Except possibly for the last part, it wasn't quite like that.

For one thing, until 1897 immigrants didn't pass through Ellis Island, but through Castle Garden, a former opera house on the Battery. Even after immigration facilities were transferred to Ellis Island, only steerage passengers were taken there. First- and second-class passengers were dealt with aboard their ships. Nor was Ellis Island (named for an eighteenth-century owner, Samuel Ellis) the drab, cheerless institution we might imagine. It was a beautiful, richly decorated complex with first-class health facilities, a roof garden with inspiring views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty and good food for the relative few who were subjected to detention. Its Registration Hall with its brass chandeliers and vaulted ceiling containing 29,000 tiles handset by Italian craftsmen was possibly "the grandest single space in New York" according to The New Yorker. Although immigration officials were unquestionably hard-worked - they processed up to five thousand arrivals a day and just over one million, four times Ellis Island's supposed capacity, in a single peak year, 1907 - they performed their duties with efficiency, dispatch, and not a little compassion. (Many were themselves immigrants.)

Though the list of those who could be denied admission was formidable - it included prostitutes, lunatics, polygarnists, anarchists, those with "loathsome or contagious diseases," those deemed likely to become public charges, and some ninety other categories of undesirables - only about 2 percent of applicants were denied entrance, and so few were given names they didn't willingly accede to as to make the notion effectively mythical. Far from being a cold and insensitive introduction to the New World, it was a dazzling display of America's wealth, efficiency, and respect for the common person, one that made many truly believe that they had passed into an earthly paradise.

On landing in Manhattan the new immigrants would immediately find further manifestations of the wondrousness of America. Often they would be approached by fellow countrymen who spoke their language, but who were friendlier, easier in their manner, and far more nattily dressed than anyone they had seen at home. With astounding magnanimity, these instant friends, or runners as they were known, would offer to help the newly arrived immigrant find a job or lodgings and even insist on carrying their bags. Then at some point the immigrant would turn to discover that his new friend had vanished with his belongings, and that he had just learned his first important lesson about life in a new land. Few newly arrived travelers weren't fleeced in some way within their first few days.

Most of the millions of lower-class immigrants settled in the four square miles that were the Lower East Side, often in conditions of appalling squalor, with as many as twenty-five people sharing a single windowless room. As early as the 1860s, three-fourths of New York City's population - more than 1.2 million people - were packed into just 37,000 tenements. By the end of the century the population density of the Lower East Side was greater than that in the slums of Bombay. In an effort to improve conditions, a law was passed in 1869 requiring that every bedroom have a window. The result was the air shaft. Though a commendable notion in principle, air shafts turned out to be a natural receptacle for garbage and household slop, and thus became conduits of even greater filth and pestilence.

Crime, prostitution, begging, disease, and almost every other indicator of social deprivation existed at levels that are all but inconceivable now. (But not murder; the rate is ten times higher today.) A study of Irish immigrants to Boston around mid-century found that on average they survived for just fourteen years in America. In 1888, the infant death rate in the Italian quarter was 325 per 1,000. That is, one-third of all babies didn't survive their first year.

Gangs with names like the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Bowery B'hoys roamed the streets, robbing and mugging (an Americanism dating from 1863; also sometimes called yoking) with something approaching impunity. Although New York had had a police force since 1845, by the second half of the century it was largely corrupt and ineffectual. Typical of the breed of nineteenth-century policeman was Chief Inspector Alexander "Clubber" Williams, who was brought up on charges no fewer than 358 times but was never dismissed or even apparently disciplined, and who was so magnificently talented at corruption that by the nine of his retirement he had accumulated a yacht, a house in Connecticut, and savings of $300,000.

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that many irnmigrants fled back to Europe. At one point, for every one hundred Italians who arrived in New York each year, seventy-three left. Perhaps as many as a third of all irmnigrants eventually returned to their native soil.



Nonetheless, the trend was relentlessly westward. The pattern for European immigrants was for one group to settle in an enclave and then disperse after a generation or so, with a new concentration of immigrants taking its place. Thus when the Irish abandoned their traditional stronghold of the Five Points area, their place was taken almost immediately by Italians. The old German neighborhoods were likewise taken over by Russian and Polish Jews. But there were finer gradations than this, particularly among the Italians. Natives of Genoa tended to accumulate along Baxter Street, while Elizabeth Street housed a large community of Sicilians. Calabrians congregated in the neighborhood known as Mulberry Bend. Alpine Italians - those from areas like Ticino in Switzerland and the Tyrol near Austria - were almost invariably to be found on 69th Street.

Immigrant groups had their own theaters, newspapers, libraries, schools, clubs, stores, taverns, and places of worship. Germans alone could choose from 133 German-language newspapers by 1850, some of them, like the New York Staats-Zeitung and Cincinnati Volksblau, nearly as large and influential as their English-language counterparts. Yiddish-speaking New Yorkers by the 1930s had a choice of a dozen daily newspapers, one of which, the Jewish Daily Forward, had a circulation of 125,000. Nationally, even Norwegians had forty papers in their own tongue. It was possible - indeed, in some cases not unusual - to live an entire life in the United States and never use English.

Dutch, for instance, remained widely spoken in rural New York well into the nineteenth century, some two hundred years after the Netherlands had retreated from the continent. The celebrated abolitionist, feminist, and public speaker Sojourner Truth, for instance, was raised as a slave in a Dutch household in Albany and spoke only Dutch until she reached adulthood. According to Raven I. McDavid, Jr., "a few native speakers [of Dutch] survived in the remoter parts of the Hudson Valley as late as 1941."

Though the Dutch were only a passing political presence in America, their linguistic legacy is immense. From their earliest days of contact, Americans freely appropriated Dutch terms - blunderbuss (literally "thunder gun") as early as 1654, scow in 1660, sleigh in 1703. By the mid-eighteenth centur Dutch words flooded into American English: stoop, span, coleslaw, boss, pit in the sense of the stone of a fruit, bedpan, bedspread (previously known as a counterpane), cookie, waffle, nitwit (the Dutch for I don't know is Ik niet wiet), the distinctive American interrogative how come? (a literal translation of the Dutch hoekom), poppycock (from pappekak, “soft dung”), dunderhead, and probably the caboodle in kit and caboodle. (Boedel in Dutch is a word for household effects, though J. L. Dullard, it is worth noting, mentions its resemblance to the Krio kabudu of West Africa.)

Two particularly durable Americanisms that emanate from Dutch are Santa Claus (out of Sinter Klaas, a familiar form of St. Nicholas), first recorded in American English in 1773, and Yankee (probably from either Janke, a diminutive equivalent to the English Johnny, or Jan Kees, "John Cheese," intended originally as a mild insult).

Often Dutch words were given entirely new senses. Snoepen, meaning to slip candy into one's mouth when no one is watching, was transformed into the English snoop meaning to spy or otherwise manifest nosiness. Docke, "doll," became doxy, a woman of easy virtue. Hokester, an innocuous tradesman, became our huckster, someone not to be entirely trusted. Doop to the Dutch signified a type of sauce. In America, transliterated as dope, it began with that sense in 1807, but gradually took on many others, from a person of limited mental acuity (1851), to a kind of lubricant (1870s), to a form of opium (1889), to any kind of narcotic drug (1890s), to a preparation designed to affect a horse's performance (1900), to inside information (1910). Along the way it spawned several compounds, notably dope fiend (1896) and dope addict (1933).

Still other Dutch terms came to English by way of nautical contacts, reflecting the Netherlands' days of eminence on the seas, among them hoist, bumpkin (originally a short projecting spar; how it became transferred to a rustic character is unclear), bulwark, caboose (originally a ship's galley), freebooters, hold, boom, and sloop.

As Dutch demonstrates, a group's linguistic influence bears little relation to the numbers of people who spoke it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Heartening and sobering

In my career in management consulting, my average week was marked by high volumes of travel, late night global conference calls and very little time except for the exciting work I was doing. I would frequently come back from trips to interesting places with a handful of books and CDs in my briefcase. I would put them on a shelf, turnaround, and start all over again. As a consequence, there is a large backlog of unread books and unlistened-to CDs upon which I only now am beginning to make inroads.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Eric Andersen who seems to have been around forever, often in the middle of things, playing with most of the leading lights, but somehow never quite in the spotlight that his talent would warrant.

I came across a CD of Andersen's, You Can't Relive The Past, which I apparently picked up in 2000 and stuck away in a corner. Two international relocations later, I have just come across it. The first track is wonderful, managing to render in the same song an homage to the courage and accomplishments of immigrants while simultaneously acknowledging the unfairness, imperfections, and tragedies of the world.
Eyes of the Immigrants
(from You Can't Relive the Past)
by Eric Andersen

They came by day, and they came by night.
They came like cattle they were packed so tight.
They rolled on the stairways and they slept on the decks.
And the only thing they knew was they could not turn back.
They came from Sweden and they came from France.
They came from up and down along the continent.
They came in floods and they came in waves.
They came for glory and they came to escape.
Some held their breath in the morning light.
As New York Harbor came into sight.
They leaned on the rails and the decks just to see.
A statue of a lady known as "Liberty."
Their hands gripped the rails and their eyes peered up.
Some were crying with their eyes; some were crying with their hearts.
They were dreaming of the future; they were crying for a chance.
Maybe the son of a shipper could even be the president.

CHORUS:
Eyes of the healthy and eyes of the lame
Eyes of the free and the eyes of the chain
Eyes of the wealthy and eyes of the poor
Eyes of an Indian who rides nevermore
Always remember and never forget
Beneath all the dirt and beneath all the sweat
Who looked to the future and knew what it meant
But the hearts and the minds and the souls and the dreams
In the eyes, eyes of the Immigrant

Out of Ellis Island they poured like sheep
Onto the land and into the streets.
With their hands on their children and their coats on their backs
They brought nothing more than they could fit in their sacks.
Carpenters, steel workers, firemen, and cops
Peddled rags full of shoes in all the neighborhood shops.
They worked with their hands and they worked with their backs
Bringin' coal from the ground and puttin' smoke up the stacks.
Wave after wave the flood never stopped.
Soon the ones on the bottom they rose to the top.
They dreamed and they said no matter how its gotten bad,
You give to your kids the things that you never had.
Be doctors and lawyers and chairmen of the boards.
Be the guardians of peace and protectors in the wars.
You work with your knowledge and your skills and your minds.
Now its everybody's future that you hold in your sights.

CHORUS

Some tried to settle, some couldn't out of fear.
Some kept dreaming of the new frontier.
Everybody was convinced they had a place in the sun,
That it wasn't what you were so much as what you could become.
Everybody's future wasn't everybody's dream;
The land could be barren and the streets could be mean.
It was a fact in the suburbs and the farms and the shacks
That you only knew ahead there ain't no room to fall back.
This is the land and the home of the free.
That's what we want the whole world to believe.
Not everybody makes it to the top of the heap:
Some were brought in chains from far across the sea;
Some lost their way and some lost track;
And some realized that you can't look back.
And sometimes you hear it but you don't know where
The sound of the waves still crashing in your ear.

Friday, December 4, 2009

500 Reasons

Isaac Bashevis Singer on children and reading:
There are 500 reasons I write for children.... Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics.... They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.... They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Roman writers

Those Romans sure could pen a powerful thought and sentiment. When I was between 15 and 25 years old, I went through a very rewarding patch reading the Roman historians and orators. Cicero was one of those who I found always intriguing. I am reminded by coming across this muscular yet allusive passage of his:
A nation can survive it's fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.

For the traitor appears not as a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Roman orator, statesman 42 B.C.

Monday, November 30, 2009

In command at twelve years of age . . .

In the December 2009 issue of Naval History is an article Confluence of Careers at Mobile Bay by Craig L. Symonds, charting the respective careers of "Southerner" David Glasgow Farragut who served as the admiral leading the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay and "Northerner" Franklin Buchanan who commanded the Confederacy's defending forces.

Symonds recounts an incident early in Farragut's career that seems impossibly improbable to our modern mind and mores. Farragut joined the US Navy as a midshipman at age nine and was serving as such three years later at the commencement of the War of 1812 between the US and Great Britain. Farragut served under the command of David Porter, captain of the USS Essex tasked with harrassing British merchant shipping. Symonds takes up the story in his article:
The Essex, with young Faragutt on board, next headed for the Galapagos Islands. There, Porter savaged the British whaling fleet, taking a dozen prizes. They were then manned with prize crews, put under the command of a junior officer or midshipman, and sent into port to be condemned as prizes of war. One of the prizes was an American ship, the Barclay, which had been taken by a British privateer and then recaptured by the Essex. Having taken so many prizes, Porter was running out of junior officers to appoint as prize masters, and as a result this one went to Midshipman Farragut. The American skipper of the Barclay was almost as annoyed to find himself under the "command" of a 12 year old as he had been when his ship had first been captured by a British privateer. He declared that he would take no orders from such a stripling, and Farragut had to muster all the dignity and courage he could to face him down and assert his authority. Farragut later recalled that "This was an important event in my life, and . . . I felt no little pride at finding myself in command at 12 years of age.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

His job depends on not understanding it

Upton Sinclair, in a comment that seems especially pertinent these days with what seems to be serial tsunami of revelations of analytical and research fraud:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Not even a theory to cover our nakedness . . .

From the September 19-25, 2009 edition of New Scientist. An interesting summary of the status of our theories (and lack thereof) to explain the fact that we are a naked ape compared to any of our distant relatives. I am glad that there remain fundamental mysteries before which we remain perplexed and puzzled.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

But what little there is, is very important

Came across this comment in William James' essay, The Importance of Individuals, which is worth a read.
An unlearned carpenter of my acquaintance once said in my hearing: "There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important." This distinction seems to me to go to the root of the matter.
I attended a public lecture once by a primatologist, discussing chimpanzees in Africa. At some point in her presentation she commented on the unthinking nostrum often repeated that humans and chimpanzees share 99% of their genetic material in common. She then made the point that James' carpenter makes of the importance of that small difference by highlighting a number of life forms and the percentage of genetic material which we share. I believe she got down to dandelions, with which, if memory serves, we share 7% of our genetic material.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Early Rising

An essay by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, On Early Rising, has this marvellously elliptical rail against early rising:
The intelligent reader, and no other is supposable, need not be told that the early bird aphorism is a warning and not an incentive. The fate of the worm refutes the pretended ethical teaching of the proverb, which assumes to illustrate the advantage of early rising and does so by showing how extremely dangerous it is. I have no patience with the worm, and when I rise with the lark I am always careful to select a lark that has overslept himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview - Terry Pratchett

An interview in the October 31, 2009 edition of New Scientist with popular sicence fiction writer Terry Pratchett.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The foundation of successful learning is improving executive function

From the September 19-25, 2009 edition of New Scientist.
One of the main themes emerging at the DOM meeting was that the foundation of successful learning is improving executive function - a collection of cognitive processes important for self-control and focusing on the task at hand.

Interesting. This is much as we have hypothesized in The Reading Hamburger. The article does not identify reading as a significant step towards improved executive function; but I bet it is.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Winds of Fate

The Winds of Fate
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

One ship drives east and another drives west <
With the selfsame winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life:
'Tis the set of the soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A violent South Wind blew upon them

Herodotus relates a tale in his Histories, in which Cambyses, King of the Persians, sends an army of 50,000 to subjugate and punish the priests of Amun in the oasis of Siwa in Egypt for refusing to acknowledge his conquest of their land. Herodotus:
and those of the Persians who had been sent to march against the Ammonians set forth from Thebes and went on their way with guides; and it is known that they arrived at the city of Oasis, which is inhabited by Samians said to be of the Aischrionian tribe, and is distant seven days' journey from Thebes over sandy desert: now this place is called in the speech of the Hellenes the "Isle of the Blessed." It is said that the army reached this place, but from that point onwards, except the Ammonians themselves and those who have heard the account from them, no man is able to say anything about them; for they neither reached the Ammonians nor
returned back. This however is added to the story by the Ammonians themselves: - they say that as the army was going from this Oasis through the sandy desert to attack them, and had got to a point about mid-way between them and the Oasis, while they were taking their morning meal a violent South Wind blew upon them, and bearing with it heaps of the desert sand it buried them under it, and so they disappeared and were seen no more. Thus the Ammonians say that it came to pass with regard to this army.

With another H/T to Megan McArdle at The Atlantic Monthly, it now appears that archaeologists may have discovered evidence of the fate of this missing Persian army. This would be awesome. Vanished Persian Army Said Found in Desert. This would be akin to the discovery of the battlefield of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest where Varus lost his three legions (see The Battle that Stopped Rome by Peter S. Wells) or the mystery of the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion (see Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth for an independent reader historical fiction account.)

A commanding sense of duty

When in my early teens, I lived in Europe and was particularly fascinated with World War II with many people I knew having personal or familial stories to tell of a titanic event that was still within living memory. Because of that fascination, I remember the news reports from 1974 of the last Japanese soldiers of World War II surrendering from their hidden mountain outposts. Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany provides a little more detail.
Hiro Onoda became a Japanese soldier when he was eighteen. In 1945 he was on Lubang Island in the Philippines when United States troops overran it. Most of the Japanese there were captured or killed. Onoda was in a group that fled into the mountains and hid out.

When the war ended, the U.S. and Japanese governments knew that holdouts remained on the island. Expeditions were sent to find them; leaflets were dropped, urging them to surrender, without success.

For years the holdouts survived by raiding native villages, earning the nicknam "Mountain Devils." As years passed, Onoda's comrades died off from disease and exposure, until only he remained.

In 1974, a university student named Norio Suzuki spent months on Lubang Island looking for survivors. While Suzuki was drinking from a stream, Onoda approached him. Informed the war was long over, Onoda still refused to surrender unless ordered to do so by his commanding officer.

Suzuki returned to Japan, found the officer, and brought him back to the island. Twenty-nine years after hostilities ended, Onoda returned to Japan, at age fifty-two. He was greeted by a crowd of 4,000 at the airport. His memoirs became a bestselling book in Japan. He used the money to retire to Brazil, where he bought a 2,800 acre ranch and lived out his life in quiet solitude.

That thought of being the lone survivor is not dissimilar to the story of Ishi, told in the book, Ishi in Two Worlds. Ishi was the sole surviving member of the Yahi indian tribe in California and made contact with the outside world in 1911.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Seems like a good way to spend ones' time

From Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany. Describing how small the US Army was in the years immediately preceding World War II, Ayres lists the following.
* General Douglas MacArthur was the nation's only four-star general. There were no three-star generals.
* As Army Chief of Staff, MacArthur rode around Washington, D.C. in the army's only limousine.
* MacArthur had only one aide - a young major named Dwight Eisenhower.
* Although MacArthur had a limousine, when it was necesary for Eisenhower to get around town, he had to fill out a requisition form for trolley tickets.
* Eisenhower came close to resigning his commission because of boredom. He later admitted he spent his time reading adventure pulp magazines.

Back when the government was small . . .

From Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany.
When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, the U.S. Navy consisted of a few aging warships and no one wanted the job of Secretary of the Navy. After being turned down by several potential appointees, Jefferson advertised the position in newspapers. He received only one response, that being from Robert Smith of Maryland. Jefferson hired him, and Smith served as Secretary of the Navy for nine years. In that time, he built the navy into a force that demanded world respect.

Translating Beowulf

H/T to Megan McArdle of the The Atlantic Monthly for bringing attention to this quite interesting site by Victoria Poulakis. Her site explores the challenges of translating ancient texts into modern vernacular. Fascinating. I was in particular taken by the five page section on Beowulf. My youngest son has always been especially enamored with ancient stories such as Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and Beowulf. He enjoyed each of these being read to him at a relatively young age, probably six to eight years old. I think the primordial nature of these stories is particularly captivating for young children.

Poulakis uses short passages to explore all the considerations that a translator must consider when converting ancient language to modern.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

We campaign in poetry . . .

From a speech by Mario Cuomo at the Chubb Fellowship Lecture at Yale University on February 1, 1985, New Haven. While our run of the mill politicians don't excite much except disdain, we have been fortunate to have such a tradition of gifted speakers, from all philosophical angles of the compass, to speak in a fashion that arrests ones attention and makes one think.
We campaign in poetry. But when we're elected we're forced to govern in prose. And when we govern - as distinguished from when we campiagn - we come to understand the difference between a speech and a statute. It's here that the noble aspirations, neat promises and slogans of a campaign get bent out of recognition or even break as you try to nail them down to the Procrustean bed of reality.

Watch out for the booksellers

From Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany.
Following the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington's Continental Army held the heights outside Boston, placing the British Army under siege. From out of the ranks, a young man came to Washington with a plan to fortify the position. The commander was so impressed he placed the soldier in charge of fortifications.

Next he told Washington that, without artillery, the British still might overrun the position. He reminded Washington that the abandoned fort at Ticonderoga in upstate New York had plenty of cannons just sitting there. He volunteered to lead an expedition to bring them to Boston.

Washington was doubtful that the guns could be moved in the dead of winter, much less all the way to Boston. His aides also were skeptical that an overweight city boy could brave the rugged wilderness and accomplish the task. With nothing to lose, Washington approved the expedition. What Washington did not realize was that this was no ordinary city boy.

Everyone called him "Fat Henry." He weighed almost 300 punds and was something of a klutz. He even had two fingers missing from his left hand, the result of a hunting accident. He was a bookworm and, in fact, owned a bookstore. Well read on many subjects, his favorite topic was military history. He had studied all of the great battles of Europe and knew the most minute details about them.

Henry and several volunteers reached the fort in early December 1775. They strapped forty-three cannons and sixteen mortars on hurriedly built barges to float them down Lake George. They had barely departed when a blizzard descended on them. They abandoned the lake, built sleds, and purchased horses and oxen to tug the cannons over the snow.

Through dense wilderness, across frozen streams, and over the rugged Berkshire Mountains they moved southward, sometimes covering no more than a few hundred yards a day. Two more blizzards came, dropping temperatures below zero. Still they trudged on, defying the elements. Finally, two months after they set out on their journey, the party limped into Framingham, Massachusetts.

In the dead of one of the worst New England winters ever, Henry and his men delivered fifty-five artillery pieces weighing 119,000 pounds. Once the cannons were placed in the hills overlooking Boston, the British abandoned the city and sailed for Canada.

Fat Henry's real name was Henry Knox. He was twenty-four at Bunker Hill. By the time he was twenty-five he would be a brigadier general and Washington's artillery officer. He became the nation's first secretary of war, and Fort Knox would be named in his honor. He retired from public life at forty-three. Of all his accomplishments, the least known might be his most important. During the war he started an artillery school that later became the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

True of many traditions and adages

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried - G.K. Chesterton

He is dying in my poor house . . .

Towards the end of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, he is recounting what became of his shipmates after their shared voyage. Some he stayed in touch with and can recount their life journey in some detail; others disappeared completely and he can say nothing of their fate.

Dana relates this sad outcome of one of his shipmates. It is almost Dickensian in atmosphere, pathos and tragedy. It is also an arresting reminder of the intimacy even the most prosperous members of society could share with the lowest members back just 150 years ago.
One cold winter evening, a pull at the bell, and a woman in distress wished to see me. Her poor son George,--George Somerby,--"you remember him, sir; he was a boy in the Alert; he always talks of you,--he is dying in my poor house." I went with her, and in a small room, with the most scanty furniture, upon a mattress on the floor,--emaciated, ashy pale, with hollow voice and sunken eyes,--lay the boy George, whom we took out a small, bright boy of fourteen from a Boston public school, who fought himself into a position on board ship (ante, p. 231), and whom we brought home a tall, athletic youth, that might have been the pride and support of his widowed mother. There he lay, not over nineteen years of age, ruined by every vice a sailor's life absorbs. He took my hand in his wasted feeble fingers, and talked a little with his hollow, death-smitten voice.

I was to leave town the next day for a fortnight's absence, and whom had they to see to them? The mother named her landlord,--she knew no one else able to do much for them. It was the name of a physician of wealth and high social position, well known in the city as the owner of many small tenements, and of whom hard things had been said as to his strictness in collecting what he thought his dues. Be that as it may, my memory associates him only with ready and active beneficence. His name has since been known the civilized world over, from his having been the victim of one of the most painful tragedies in the records of the criminal law. I tried the experiment of calling upon him; and, having drawn him away from the cheerful fire, sofa, and curtains of a luxurious parlor, I told him the simple tale of woe, of one of his tenants, unknown to him even by name.

He did not hesitate; and I well remember how, in that biting, eager air, at a late hour, he drew his cloak about his thin and bent form, and walked off with me across the Common, and to the South End, nearly two miles of an exposed walk, to the scene of misery. He gave his full share, and more, of kindness and material aid; and, as George's mother told me, on my return, had with medical aid and stores, and a clergyman, made the boy's end as comfortable and hopeful as possible.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What was that about the elephant?

From Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany.
"They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Union General John Sedgwick just before he was killed by a sharpshooter at Spotsylvania Courthouse.

I guess it might be time to reread . . .

It has been years since I read 1984. I enjoyed it at the time, probably when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I recently came across an interesting little site, Newspeak Dictionary which is a collection of the definitions of neoligisms from George Orwell's 1984. I had completely forgotten about duckspeak. A term that seems of ever greater relevance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Burma Surgeon

I picked up a book at a library sale a couple of weeks ago, Burma Surgeon by Gordon S. Seagrave. It turns out to be one of those little gems that every haunter of used bookstores anticipates and treasures finding.

Gordon S. Seagrave came from a long line of American Baptist Missionaries serving in Burma from the 1830's onwards. He was born in 1897, learning to speak one of the native languages, Karen, before he spoke English. He returned to the US for his higher education, to receive his training as a doctor at Johns Hopkins and to marry his wife, Marion before returning to Burma in the 1920's.

He ended up serving the peoples of the Shan states in northeastern Burma for four decades. Arriving with his pregnant wife, a young son and a full-hearted commitment to his mission there was not much to be found to give him hope or confidence. Starting with virtually nothing, he built a 100 patient hospital, satellite aid stations, and much later, further expanded the hospital and its services. He trained several generations of Burmese nurses, paying particular attention to try and match nurses in training to the languages and cultures of the patients being served, i.e. he needed to train nurses from among the Burmese people, Chinese, Karen, Shan, Kachin, Taungthu, etc.

With the advent of World War II and the Japanese invasion of Siam and Burma, Seagrave had to abandon his hill hospital and formed a nascent MASH unit to serve the Allied forces in eastern Burma (Chinese Army, British and latterly American forces). The fast moving Japanese invasion rapidly cut off these forces, one from another and each other from natural routes of escape into India. Seagrave gathered up a cadre of his people and eventually managed to escape into British India with General Stilwell by hiking through remote trails in the far north west of Burma.

His biography and adventures are captured in the book I found, Burma Surgeon, published in 1943. As one of the first war memoirs, it was an instant hit in the US and Seagrave followed it up with The Burma Surgeon Returns published in 1946, chronicling his return to the Shan states and the resurrection of his hospital from the war ruins into which it had fallen. This second book was equally well received.

This is not in the same league as such WWII classics as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (still able to seize the imagination of sixth graders and up) or The Great Escape (more for ninth graders and up).

The narrative flow is choppy; switching from history to autobiography, to travelogue to journal. I would pitch this at eleventh graders and up that have a particular interest in Asia or World War II. Burma Surgeon is an interesting text for other reasons. For one thing, the war and battles in Burma get very short shrift in the world history books so it is interesting simply for providing coverage not otherwise available.

Another aspect is the contrast between our modern over-sensitivity to issues of culture and ethnicity compared to the fairly robust approach to these issues in Seagraves' text. He is at no times demeaning or derogatory of any of the ethnic groups but he is perfectly comfortable retailing the common stereotypes of each group as perceived by the other groups in a fashion which would be anathema today.

Finally there is a disconnectedness between the type of man you think Seagrave must be and the way he comes across in his own text. There is some element that makes you feel that there is a thin patina of false modesty over a very healthy self-regard. I don't think, though, that that is the case. Instead, I suspect it reflects the self-confidence and orientation of an individual who is accustomed to being the solution to everyone's problems. Remove an appendix? Done. Clean the latrines? Done. Build by hand a 100 patient hospital? Done. Perform an operation in the dark, in the rain, on the trail, with no surgical instruments? Done.

I suspect that being the final authority on so many things in that near distant time, in that remote location with that degree of isolation would make anyone have a degree of self-confidence and self-reliance not naturally seen otherwise.

His tale also puts to the lie the romance of natural treatments, herbs and medicines. Looking at what he had to deal with and what he was tackling in terms of depth and breadth of diseases, you realize that natural medicine was 90% misdirected tradition and 10% wisdom in botanical resources. It was not capable of alleviating the bulk of what felled or incapacitated the population and that Seagraves' medicines and surgeries, limited and and unrefined as they were, made a world of difference.

A fascinating little glimpse into a world mostly gone through a book largely now forgotten though once well known.