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.

Final test

This is the final test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him. - William Lyon Phelps

Gross Neglect of Duty

From Thomas Ayres' A Military Miscellany. In 1831 Edgar Allan Poe was enrolled as a cadet at West Point but
was expelled for disobeying an order and "gross neglect of duty".

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

In tenth grade I attended a boarding school in East Anglia in the UK. An interesting and fairly distinctive experience. While administered by two Scottish headmistresses, the small student body was international in scope, the hundred or so students coming from five continents and at least twenty countries.

Miss Petrie was our tenth grade English teacher and was very much of the old school of teaching. You learned the definitions of words by memorizing them word for word and being tested on them weekly. When we read plays, we memorized whole chunks of dialogue. While excrutiating at the time, in hindsight it was a wonderful foundation of knowledge and cultural fluency. There is nothing that forces your engagement with the meaning of words and with the meaning of texts than having to memorize passages.

One of the plays which we read, (and declaimed in class and memorized) was Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar. What a great play for that age. Lots of memorable lines of course but also a practical engagement with the ways of the world, politics, and power. I found Mark Anthony's clever manipulation of the crowd eye-opening. I would hope that all English teachers use it and have their students identify the modern equivalents of masterful oratory used to manipulate popular sentiment.

From Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene II
BRUTUS
Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
--Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

All
None, Brutus, none.

BRUTUS
Then none have I offended. I have done no more to
Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of
his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not
extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences
enforced, for which he suffered death.

Enter ANTONY and others, with CAESAR's body

Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony: who,
though he had no hand in his death, shall receive
the benefit of his dying, a place in the
commonwealth; as which of you shall not? With this
I depart,--that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.

All
Live, Brutus! live, live!

First Citizen
Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

Second Citizen
Give him a statue with his ancestors.

Third Citizen
Let him be Caesar.

Fourth Citizen
Caesar's better parts
Shall be crown'd in Brutus.

First Citizen
We'll bring him to his house
With shouts and clamours.

BRUTUS
My countrymen,--

Second Citizen
Peace, silence! Brutus speaks.

First Citizen
Peace, ho!

BRUTUS
Good countrymen, let me depart alone,
And, for my sake, stay here with Antony:
Do grace to Caesar's corpse, and grace his speech
Tending to Caesar's glories; which Mark Antony,
By our permission, is allow'd to make.
I do entreat you, not a man depart,
Save I alone, till Antony have spoke.

Exit

First Citizen
Stay, ho! and let us hear Mark Antony.

Third Citizen
Let him go up into the public chair;
We'll hear him. Noble Antony, go up.

ANTONY
For Brutus' sake, I am beholding to you.

Goes into the pulpit

Fourth Citizen
What does he say of Brutus?

Third Citizen
He says, for Brutus' sake,
He finds himself beholding to us all.

Fourth Citizen
'Twere best he speak no harm of Brutus here.

First Citizen
This Caesar was a tyrant.

Third Citizen
Nay, that's certain:
We are blest that Rome is rid of him.

Second Citizen
Peace! let us hear what Antony can say.

ANTONY
You gentle Romans,--

Citizens
Peace, ho! let us hear him.

ANTONY
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

First Citizen
Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.

Second Citizen
If thou consider rightly of the matter,
Caesar has had great wrong.

Third Citizen
Has he, masters?
I fear there will a worse come in his place.

Fourth Citizen
Mark'd ye his words? He would not take the crown;
Therefore 'tis certain he was not ambitious.

First Citizen
If it be found so, some will dear abide it.

Second Citizen
Poor soul! his eyes are red as fire with weeping.

Third Citizen
There's not a nobler man in Rome than Antony.

Fourth Citizen
Now mark him, he begins again to speak.

ANTONY
But yesterday the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world; now lies he there.
And none so poor to do him reverence.
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honourable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honourable men.
But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, 'tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament--
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read--
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.

Fourth Citizen
We'll hear the will: read it, Mark Antony.

All
The will, the will! we will hear Caesar's will.

ANTONY
Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Fourth Citizen
Read the will; we'll hear it, Antony;
You shall read us the will, Caesar's will.

ANTONY
Will you be patient? will you stay awhile?
I have o'ershot myself to tell you of it:
I fear I wrong the honourable men
Whose daggers have stabb'd Caesar; I do fear it.

Fourth Citizen
They were traitors: honourable men!

All
The will! the testament!

Second Citizen
They were villains, murderers: the will! read the will.

ANTONY
You will compel me, then, to read the will?
Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
And let me show you him that made the will.
Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

Several Citizens
Come down.

Second Citizen
Descend.

Third Citizen
You shall have leave.

ANTONY comes down

Fourth Citizen
A ring; stand round.

First Citizen
Stand from the hearse, stand from the body.

Second Citizen
Room for Antony, most noble Antony.

ANTONY
Nay, press not so upon me; stand far off.

Several Citizens
Stand back; room; bear back.

ANTONY
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent ,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us.
O, now you weep; and, I perceive, you feel
The dint of pity: these are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar's vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marr'd, as you see, with traitors.

First Citizen
O piteous spectacle!

Second Citizen
O noble Caesar!

Third Citizen
O woful day!

Fourth Citizen
O traitors, villains!

First Citizen
O most bloody sight!

Second Citizen
We will be revenged.

All
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!

ANTONY
Stay, countrymen.

First Citizen
Peace there! hear the noble Antony.

Second Citizen
We'll hear him, we'll follow him, we'll die with him.

ANTONY
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honourable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men's blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

All
We'll mutiny.

First Citizen
We'll burn the house of Brutus.

Third Citizen
Away, then! come, seek the conspirators.

ANTONY
Yet hear me, countrymen; yet hear me speak.

All
Peace, ho! Hear Antony. Most noble Antony!

ANTONY
Why, friends, you go to do you know not what:
Wherein hath Caesar thus deserved your loves?
Alas, you know not: I must tell you then:
You have forgot the will I told you of.

All
Most true. The will! Let's stay and hear the will.

ANTONY
Here is the will, and under Caesar's seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.

Second Citizen
Most noble Caesar! We'll revenge his death.

Third Citizen
O royal Caesar!

ANTONY
Hear me with patience.

All
Peace, ho!

ANTONY
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbours and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever, common pleasures,
To walk abroad, and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?

First Citizen
Never, never. Come, away, away!
We'll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors' houses.
Take up the body.

Second Citizen
Go fetch fire.

Third Citizen
Pluck down benches.

Fourth Citizen
Pluck down forms, windows, any thing.

Exeunt Citizens with the body

ANTONY
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Against Censorship

From John Milton's Areopagitica.
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon`s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God`s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you

Solitude
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar'd wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Friday, November 13, 2009

In a universe more and more abstract . . .

Quoted in Clive James' Cultural Amnesia.
In a universe more and more abstract, it is up to us to make sure that the human voice does not cease to be heard. - Witold Gombrowicz, Journal

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Klondike wilderness

This passage from David Perkins' The Eureka Effect made me think of the challenge facing parents in finding the books that they most want their children to read and which their children are most likely to enjoy. Perkins is speaking of breakthrough thinking and its constituent components.
The first challenge of finding anything worthwhile in a Klondike wilderness is that there is just so much of it! Our conventional image of a breakthrough involves leaps of the imagination, a matter to be looked at more closely a little later. However, all too often there is no natural path even for imagination to follow. One just has to rove through the wilderness to see what turns up. And, if the wilderness is big, one has to rove with reasonable efficiency.

25-35,000 new children's titles are published each year in the US alone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"You never say farewell to courage."

From James C. Humes' Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln.
In August 1964, Sir Winston Churchill lay dying in London's King Edward VII Hospital. General Eisenhower, who had just attended the twentieth anniversary of the D day invasion in France, visited his bedside. The venerable statesman, then in his ninetieth year, did not speak when Eisenhower entered his suite but instead reached out a frail pink hand to clasp Eisenhower's. The two hands joined on the bedside table.

No words were spoken - just two partners sharing silently the memories of their struggles in war and peace for the principles they both cherished. Ten minutes passed in silence. Two nations, two leaders, and two friends. Then Churchill unclasped his right hand and slowly moved it in a "vee for victory" sign!

Eisenhower, his eyes moist, left the room and told an aide:
I just said good-bye to Winston, but you never say farewell to courage.

Richard Henry Dana's nostalgia

I have nearly finished Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. An interesting story that it took a long time to getting around to read. Not a critical text in a reading life but one that has been worth the while. An unexpected pleasure has been the addendum to the original publication. Nearly a quarter of a century after his time as a laboring sailor on the coast of California, Dana returns as a prosperous, established, mature citizen to revisit the scenes of his youth. It is an interesting addendum on many levels; for the history of California, for social commentary, etc.

Not least is it interesting for Dana's marked nostalgia for a time and experience that while seminal to his development was also demonstrably challenging, hard and frequently unpleasant. The whole addendum is enfused with this sort of conflicted nostalgia as captured in this passage.
But evening is drawing on, and our boat sails to-night. So, refusing a horse or carriage, I walk down, not unwilling to be a little early, that I may pace up and down the beach, looking off to the islands and the points, and watching the roaring, tumbling billows. How softening is the effect of time! It touches us through the affections. I almost feel as if I were lamenting the passing away of something loved and dear,--the boats, the Kanakas, the hides, my old shipmates. Death, change, distance, lend them a character which makes them quite another thing from the vulgar, wearisome toil of uninteresting, forced manual labour.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"I wish you had read more books."

From Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell. James Boswell has confessed to Samuel Johnson that "I don't talk much from books; but there is a very good reason for it. I have not read many books." To which Johnson replies, foreshadowing the plea of many reading researchers today that the more one reads the more one knows and the more one knows, the more one reads:
I wish you had read more books. The foundation must be laid by reading. General principles must be had from books. But they must be brought to the test of real life. In conversation, you never get a system.

Boswell was well aware of his deficiencies in systematic learning.
There is an imperfection, a superficialness, in all my notions. I understand nothing clearly, nothing to the bottom. I pick up fragments, but never have in my memory a mass of any size. I wonder really if it be possible for me to acquire any one part of knowledge fully.

For all that this was a serious issue for him, Boswell also recognized his true talent as a catalyst.
I am a quick fire, a taper, which can light up a great and lasting fire though itself is soon extinguished.

For all that self-knowledge, Boswell was ever a slave to his appetites and distractions. Wine, women and song were ever present hurdles to the course of action he knew he ought to pursue. Samuel Johnson decided to assist Boswell. "He is to buy for me a chest of books of his choosing off stalls, and I am to read more and drink less. That was his counsel."

Johnson did buy those books and had them delivered to Boswell but apparently they sat untended on shelves. There is also no evidence that Boswell ever drank less.

I wonder just which books those might have been to be so estimated by the author of the first English dictionary?

Monday, November 9, 2009

How did that happen?

I like to think of myself as a person that stays reasonably current on news and world events. I read a couple of newspapers each day, subscribe to several general news and science magazines, visit news and commentary sites, etc. It is true that there are periods of days and sometimes weeks when the press of business means I am not as thorough as usual but still, I think I am pretty well on top of things.

So how on earth did I miss a completely new rift system emerging in Ethiopia four years ago? And this isn't just some obscure deep earth geological survey. This is a right-out-in-the-open, 20 foot wide, 35 mile long rift that formed in a matter of days. Seems like it would be hard to miss that event. But apparently miss it I did.

I guess the lesson is: We never know as much as we think we know.

Talking and Conversing

I came across this via The Long Boy and Others by B.L. Reid but is actually from James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson
Though his usual phrase for conversation was talk, yet he made a distinction; for when he once told me that he dined the day before at a friend's house, with 'a very pretty company;' and I asked him if there was good conversation, he answered, 'No, Sir; we had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.'

I wonder if the distinction between societies and communities is that members of a society talk with one another, where members of a community converse?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. An early mystery novel but a deeply contemplative and even philosophical one and studded with memorable lines.
"The poor object to being governed badly. The rich object to being governed at all."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ooph!

One of the reasons we started Through the Magic Door was to give parents a resource where they might find not just good books but books that are somewhat more affirming and positive than many of the titles deemed appropriate by more refined tastes. This need for something a little more leavening was reaffirmed while perusing a catalogue I received a couple of days ago. This is a supplier of books to teachers for classroom libraries. The following are snippets of the synopses of the first twenty recommended titles.

Death, drug dealing, smuggling, prison, abuse, abandonment, lying, premeditated murder, juvenile detention, illegal immigration, homelessness, bullying, depression, revenge, and handicaps. Who would inflict this kind of fare on kids? More to the point, what teacher would consider this appropriate? Despite what I might think, there clearly is a healthy business to be had catering to such a dark world view.
Poignant tale of five handicapped boys at a summer camp.

Donnie has always ignored the bullies. He lives under the radar, sailing through classes and working on his graphic novel. Then a...

Hakeem and his family must relocate to Detroit where he quickly becomes enemies with a former childhood friend, who also happens to...

Feeling alienated from everyone around her, Los Angeles high school senior Victoria hides behind the identity of a favorite movie...

After Martin's little brother, is killed, all Martin can think about is revenge. When a new teacher reaches out to him and he meets...

In the picture, Aunt Donna is very, very pregnant. My mother is not. I look at my mom and she is crying silently, her hand over her...

After being tormented by a bully at his new school for months, Darrell is faced with the decision to keep running away, or find a...

Tired of being hungry, cold, and dirty from living on the streets of New York City with other homeless teenagers, dying one by one,...

Orca Soundings series. For mature readers.

Fifteen-year-old Victor Flores journeys north in a desperate attempt to cross the Arizona border and find work in the United States...

Just when she thinks she knows who she is, Hope falls in love and her world is turned upside down. Orca Soundings series. For mature...

Remy has just been released from juvenile detention, there because he assaulted a guy who insulted his immigrant girlfriend. Remy...

In 1962 England, despite observing his father's illness and the suffering of the fire-eating Mr. McNulty, as well as enduring abuse...

Fifteen-year-old Zits has been tossed around the foster child system since he was six years old. When he decides to gun people down...

When 16-year-old Jason Bock and his friends create their own religion to worship the town's water tower, what started out as a joke...

When Hannah gets stung, she rises out of her body, where she's greeted by her dead boyfriend, Logan, and a loving but unseen...

When Anna, Emma, and Mariah concoct a story about why they are late getting home one Friday night. Their lie has unimaginable...

With gritty details of drug use and prison violence, the author relates how, as a young adult, he became a drug user and smuggler,...

Kate is in the dumps. She's tired of her tomboy image and she misses her best friend. Opportunity knocks when fly-girl Naleejah...

New in town, Casey is desperate to fit in and make friends. Her parents leave for the weekend, so she has a party. The living room...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I dwell in a lonely house I know

Ghost House
by Robert Frost

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O'er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me -
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad, -
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.